During a ceremony Thursday at the State House, Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law the Elijah Gorham Act, named after the Baltimore high school football player who died last year after suffering a traumatic brain injury during a game.
The law requires all middle and high schools in Maryland to develop emergency action plans for all of their athletic venues, including for the use of defibrillators, which must be a “brief walk” from an athletic practice or event, and cooling equipment for heatstroke, which must be “readily available.”
“Elijah’s family is still troubled by his death,” said James Gorham, Elijah Gorham’s father. “But he’s very, very much missed and loved, and we just want to make sure that the sports in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland are going to be safe for all children.”
The young man’s family has expressed concerns about the nearly 45 minutes he was cared for on the sideline during that fateful Sept. 18 game, before he was transported to a hospital, where he received emergency brain surgery. He died about a month later.
The family has established the 7STRONG Foundation, named after Elijah’s football jersey number. They plan to host a 7-on-7 flag football tournament focused on educating young athletes about safe practices.
”These young men need to know the same things that these trainers need to know, as far as hydration, concussions,” said Elijah Gorham’s mother Shantres Shaw.
”With the Elijah Gorham Act, that’s about planning ahead of time,” said Douglas Phillips, an attorney representing Shaw. “And they have to actually run it, and everybody has to sign off and say ‘I was there. We did this together.’”
The law requires the emergency action plans to be rehearsed in-person before the start of each sport’s season. It also requires all members of coaching staffs to be trained in the use of defibrillators and cold water immersion.
Phillips said staff members on the sideline initially may have believed Gorham was suffering from heat stroke, and treated him with ice. That’s why the family feels it is important for all coaching staff to receive the training, he said.
The Jordan McNair Foundation, established in honor of the 19-year-old University of Maryland football player who died in 2018 after suffering heatstroke at a team practice, had been working on the bill prior to Gorham’s passing, but decided to involve his family in the process, said Tonya Wilson-House, Jordan McNair’s mother and co-founder of his foundation.
“It always takes a tragedy to make things change,” Wilson-House said.
Wilson-House called the new law “dear and close to my heart,” for its focus on student athlete safety. Last year, the foundation worked to pass the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, which focused athlete safety in higher education, and allowed those student athletes to profit from their name and likeness, a practice that was ultimately allowed nationwide.
Now, the focus is on making sure that state schools successfully implement the new law, she said.
The Gorham bill takes effect July 1, in advance of the fall sports season.
“It’s a pretty incredible feeling, on behalf of all of the athletic trainers in the state,” said Wes Robinson, who was president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association from 2018 to 2020. “Things that we’ve felt as challenges throughout the years, like access to AEDs, has been established.”
Baltimore City Democrat Del. Brooke Lierman sponsored the bill, alongside Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat.
“I’m thrilled that we were able to introduce and pass legislation so quickly that will ensure our schools are providing the safest possible environment to participate in athletics,” Lierman said. “As a former public school athlete and as a public school parent and a legislator, I want to make sure that we’re learning from past mistakes.”
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Lierman said she plans to follow up with city schools about their emergency action plans. Per the law, the plans are to be posted online, so parents should seek them out as well, she said.
The law’s signing came just one day after Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates unanimously approved a $345,000 settlement for Gorham’s parents, which includes a series of procedural changes at city schools.
Gorham said he didn’t feel satisfied with the settlement, but he’s looking forward to the work of the 7STRONG Foundation, established in his son’s memory with the help of some of the settlement funds.
“There’s no amount of money that can replace my son,” he said. “But I feel like we were being penalized for what they didn’t have in place.”
The settlement compels Baltimore City to hire athletic trainers for each one of its high schools by the 2024 to 2025 school year, in addition to a supervisor for those trainers in the Interscholastic Athletics Office.
It also calls for the city to work with the fire department to ensure quick response times to city athletic events and to increase emergency training for head coaches, assistant coaches, volunteer coaches and student athletes.
“We just want to make sports a lot safer for our children,” said James Gorham.