HOUSTON—A member of the House Judiciary Committee criticized the biggest conferences in college athletics Monday for failing to adopt policies on handling athlete concussions that go beyond what's required by the NCAA.
During a committee hearing on head injuries in college and youth football, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., chided leagues such as the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 for not implementing tougher rules.
He first asked Ron Courson, director of sports medicine at the University of Georgia and a member of the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, if any conferences had tougher policies. When he said that they did not, Cohen seemed incensed.
"Don't you think that's an indictment of each of the conferences? That they accept the minimum that the NCAA mandates?" Cohen said. Shouldn't conferences and schools get together and have some stricter regulations?"
The hearing is the third on head injuries in sports held by the committee; the first two focused on problems in the NFL. Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich, said more hearings will be held throughout the country.
Cohen suggested that college athletic programs seem to care only about bringing in money and winning.
"It's money, money, money and health care ought to be considered," Cohen said. "When you hear that no college conference has any standards different from the NCAA, that's minimalism. That's doing the least we can do to get along and that's wrong. Somebody ought to have a rule and stand up and be a leader."
Much of the hearing focused on the safety of youth sports.
Dr. Bennet Omalu is a co-Founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute at West Virginia University. He testified that children under 18 should be held out for three months following a concussion to lower the risk of irreversible brain damage.
"There is no such thing as a mild concussion," he said. "Doctors are beginning to move away from that term. It's a misnomer. It's like saying there is mild cigarette smoking. If you are smoking a cigarette, it is bad."
He added that the immediate absence of symptoms does not mean the brain is healed.
"Your brain will never forget the impact," he said. "But just to give it time to balance itself, you need about three months."
The panel was particularly interested in testimony from Allen Hardin, the co-director of sports medicine and athletic training for the Texas Longhorns, who said that only about 42 percent of public high schools have access to an athletic trainer.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked questions about the possibility of the federal government funding certified athletic trainers in all high schools and junior highs with football teams and was told that there might not be enough trainers to put one in each school.
Dick Benson helped pass the Texas law known as Will's Bill after his son who died following a football head injury in 2002. The law lays out broad regulations for safety in extracurricular activities in the state's public schools, and it requires all coaches, sponsors and band directors to undergo safety training.
He believes much more needs to be done to protect young athletes and that if people ask his advice he'll tell them not to let their children play football.
"You're just playing roulette with the lives and the future of these kids," he said.
Dr. Stan Herring, the team doctor for the Seattle Seahawks who is also an expert in sports-related concussions, discussed a law in Washington state that is considered the nation's toughest return-to-play law. Under it, athletes under 18 who show concussion symptoms can't return to play without a licensed health care provider's written approval.
Herring hopes that the law will be passed in other states.
"It's revenue neutral. It doesn't require any change or extra revenue," he said. "Would it be nice to have certified athletic trainers at every school? Sure. But is that realistic today? Maybe not. But do you know what is realistic? When in doubt, sit 'em out. It's a rule, not a suggestion. For today, right now, this is a simple solution."