CHICAGO | Keep kids with concussions off the field, or your school could be forced to pay up.
Chicago's City Council is sending that threat through an ordinance that could make local schools -- public and private -- liable for water and sewer charges if they allow children to participate in sports with concussions.
"There's more and more information becoming available about the dangers of concussions," said Alderman Edward M. Burke, a co-sponsor of the ordinance that passed in January. "Part of this is an effort to get people educated on the issue, especially parents."
Stories about the catastrophic and long-term damage from concussions and other head trauma have spread throughout the sports world recently, particularly in the NFL and NHL. Both leagues are cracking down on improper hits, and putting new emphasis on prevention and care. The NFL and NHL now require any players who have suffered concussions to be cleared by an independent neurologist before they're allowed to play again.
But the blows continue to come. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and one of the faces of the NHL, hasn't played since early January after absorbing hits in consecutive games. Montreal police opened a criminal investigation Thursday into the on-ice hit that left the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty with a severe concussion and cracked vertebra. According to NFL data obtained by The Associated Press in December, the number of concussions being reported this past season was up more than 30 percent from 2008.
"The past year or two, the NFL and NCAA have taken it very seriously," said Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, a member of the NCAA's Concussion Committee and the NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. "They have begun to show how they're educating athletes at the professional level and at the NCAA level, and I think it's created awareness for coaches and parents and athletes at the youth level."
A growing number of states are passing laws that require players to be removed if they show signs of a concussion, and bar them from competing again until cleared by a medical professional trained in concussion evaluation and management. But Illinois does not have such legislation -- it has passed the House and is now before the Senate -- and Burke became more concerned the more he learned about the devastating impact of head trauma in athletes.
Dave Duerson, a safety on the nasty defense that was the backbone of the Bears' 1986 Super Bowl champions, committed suicide last month after asking his family to donate to his brain to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine. Jim McMahon, the quarterback on that larger-than-life Bears team, is having memory issues, sometimes finding himself in a room and not remembering why he's there.
Bob Probert, who spent part of his career as one of the NHL's greatest enforcers with the Blackhawks, had the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
"It appears now to be almost an epidemic around the country," Burke said.
So he and alderwoman Latasha Thomas proposed the city ordinance, tying compliance with concussion guidelines to water and sewage rates. The ordinance applies to any elementary, middle and high school that sponsors athletic activities and is exempt from city water and sewer charges. It's not clear how many schools the ordinance covers, but there are more than 100 high schools alone in the Chicago Public Schools system.
According to the ordinance, a student who shows signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion has to be pulled off the field and evaluated by a health care professional. If no one is immediately available, the child is to be "promptly taken" for medical care.
Students cannot return to play without the evaluation and written consent of a "health care professional trained in the evaluation and management of concussion."
Burke conceded that the ordinance will be tough to enforce. City officials won't be patrolling gymnasiums and ball fields to make sure schools are complying with the rules. Violations aren't likely to generate massive monetary penalties, either.
Still, the ordinance puts everyone -- coaches, administrators and parents -- on notice that concussions in kids is not an issue to be taken lightly.
"This is a serious public health danger," Burke said. "Parents and educators have to work together to ensure that youngsters are properly screened."