Add North Carolina to the growing list of states that is getting serious about high school sports safety.
During the past school year, five North Carolina student-athletes died, including football players Matt Gfeller, Atlas Fraley, and Jaquan Waller (the last from second impact syndrome), and two basketball players.
In the wake of the deaths, the state is taking four important steps to improve the safety of high school sports.
First, high school athletic directors, meeting at their 38th annual conference, are getting serious about the importance of educating coaches about the signs and symptoms of concussions and preventing second impact syndrome, something I have been pushing for years.
Second, at least one county in the state is considering an upgrade to Xenith football helmets, which could help reduce concussions, especially for players with a history of concussions. Safe, technologically advanced helmets for every child are clearly a must.
Fourth, a new bill (Senate Bill 864) was introduced last week into the North Carolina legislature funding the hiring of licensed athletic trainers (LATs) for every high school in the state, a step that I have also supported for years. Working under a specific protocol designed in consultation with a supervising licensed physician, LATs coordinate daily, on-site athletic health care for secondary school athletes. Having an LAT in each high school is, I believe, the single best step that can be taken to protect high school athletes from injury and ensure that, when they are injured, they do not return to play before they are physically and psychologically ready.
According to James R. Scifers, ATC, President of the North Carolina Athletic Trainers' Association and Associate Dean of the College of Health & Human Sciences at Western Carolina University, only 42% of the state's 379 high schools have a full-time LAT on staff, a percentage which tracks the national average. "This bill has been on our radar screen for years," says Scifers. "We realize the challenges in getting the bill enacted into law with the economy where it is. But if nothing else we will be educating the public and the legislature on the need for LATs in each high school educated in the prevention, assessment, recognition, management and rehabilitation of sports- related injuries."
It is a tragedy, of course, that any athlete has to die before a state begins to intensify its efforts to take the steps needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic injury or death in high school sports, much less four athletes in a single school year.
That North Carolina, a state with a rich tradition of producing some of the best athletes in the country and one that takes its high school sports very seriously, is taking the lead to make the safety of high school athletes such a priority, especially in tough economic times when funds are scarce, is remarkable and worthy of the support of all parents, coaches, administrators, and trainers.
Here's hoping every state in the country follows its lead.