It was early in the 2008 football season when two North Carolina high school student-athletes died after sustaining head injuries in separate incidents. One of those players had suffered a concussion during practice earlier in the week but had been allowed to compete in that Friday night’s game, where he absorbed another hit to the head and collapsed on the sidelines. He died the next day.
As the 2011 football season kicks into high gear, student-athletes in North Carolina’s middle and high schools are better-protected from harmful effects of concussions and other head injuries, thanks to the efforts of a team of health care professionals that includes James Scifers, director of the School of Health Sciences at Western Carolina University. Scifers, president of the N.C. Athletic Trainers’ Association, helped write the bill that became the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act, signed into law this summer.
The act establishes a mandatory concussion awareness education program for public school student-athletes and their parents and coaches, as well as volunteers and first responders. It also requires players who show signs or symptoms of a concussion to be removed from play or practice and not return until being cleared by a physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or athletic trainer. Each school that fields student-athletes must also develop an emergency plan to deal with serious head injuries. “This law will protect secondary-school athletes across the state and will literally save lives,” said Scifers, associate professor of athletic training at WCU.
High school football coaches agree. “The law is a good safeguard that takes those situations out of a coach’s hands and places it on the trained medical professionals,” said Danny Wilkins ’79, head football coach at Asheville High School. “This takes a lot of pressure off of coaches who might not have adequate training in that field. We are coaches, not doctors.” Josh Brooks ’98, Franklin High School’s football coach, says while there is no way to guarantee a student-athlete will not get injured, the new law creates clearly defined procedures to ensure players who are injured do not get back into the game too early, risking more serious injury. “Concussions have been happening for as long as sports have been around, but it has taken some unfortunate things happening to athletes today, with very serious injury and even death, to have this particular injury researched and looked into more deeply,” Brooks said.
Scifers’ involvement in drafting the legislation is just one example of why he recently was named recipient of one of the nation’s top honors in the field of athletic training – the Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “Dedication, innovation, loyalty and leadership are common traits among MDAT recipients,” said Eve Becker-Doyle, executive director of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “Those who receive the honor serve as an inspiration to their peers and as role models to the next generation of certified athletic trainers.”