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With Minnesota, North Dakota adding concussion laws, new hurdles ahead for high school football programs

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed a student-athlete concussion law prior to the start of this school year, according to an online article in Education Week. Minnesota and North Dakota are among those states to do so. Photo illustration by David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - Jon Schiele is certain he suffered a concussion as a wide receiver at Kidder County High School in Steele, N.D., in the mid-1990s.

Now the Edgeley-Kulm head football coach, Schiele couldn't remember the end of the game at the time. However, he was at practice the next day, and he played the following week.

Ada-Borup athletic director Kelly Anderson has a similar story from her high school playing career.

She likely suffered a concussion when she fell to the ground during a relay race baton exchange at a track meet in 1997. She, too, was practicing the next day.

"Nobody said anything," Schiele said. "You came back and you played. You wish back then they would have pulled you and they would have sat you. The brain is one thing you can't mess with.

"You can't get another one."

The days of athletes fighting through the symptoms of a concussion are quickly becoming a thing of the past in many communities.

Concussion management has become a hot topic from youth sports to professional leagues in recent years after several studies showed severe long-term brain damage could result from head injuries sustained as a young athlete.

According to an online article in Education Week, 31 states and the District of Columbia had passed a student-athlete concussion law by the start of this school year. Eleven more have similar legislation pending.

North Dakota and Minnesota are among those states taking the lead on concussion management for youth athletes.

Both state laws went into effect this month for high school athletes.

Both require any athlete under the age of 18 that has experienced concussion symptoms to be immediately removed from competition. The only way the athlete can return to action in both states is through written permission by a licensed, registered or certified health-care provider whose scope of practice includes the diagnosis and treatment of concussion.

Officials, coaches and athletic trainers in North Dakota are now required to receive biennial training regarding the nature and risk of concussion. Minnesota officials, coaches and athletic trainers must be recertified every three years.

"There is a video about what to look for and there is an online work sheet that takes 30 to 40 minutes for assistant coaches to complete," said Moorhead athletic director Don Hulbert. "For head coaches it takes more time because they are getting into more things than the assistants."

Area athletic directors and coaches are in favor of increasing the safety of athletes when it comes to concussions.

Some of them, however, have pointed out that the new law does make things a bit of a challenge.

New York Mills athletic director Travis Hensch, who is also a certified referee, said the test could make it harder for small-town schools to get referees.

"In small town Minnesota, it is hard to do," Hensch said about getting non-varsity referees to smaller towns. "We have a smaller pool to choose from."

Hensch said the new law means that if a referee is late getting to a game, the game must be postponed, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

It means small schools cannot pull a former coach out of the stands to referee a game.

Hulbert, who has been involved in high school athletics for 46 years, said the new law could handcuff entities like F-M Athletics, which relies heavily on volunteer coaches.

"Those people have a hard enough time finding coaches," Hulbert said. "To me, that is difficult and it is setting programs up for failure."

The North Dakota Activities Association had a concussion management rule on the books for each of its members since the fall of 2010.

Some coaches in North Dakota believe the state was already taking a proactive approach to diagnosing and dealing with concussions.

"I don't know that the legislature had to pass a law that all schools had to have a policy," said Central Valley athletic director Randy Vigen, who has been the school's football coach for 37 years. "Was there a need to take a step more? I don't think so. I think we were ahead of our time in the state, doing what needed to be done."

"It's obviously important because of the lasting effects of it for young students," Richland football coach and athletic director Kal Triplett added. "I don't want to call it a knee-jerk reaction, but the NFL sets the tone and it trickles down."

The financial bottom line for many small schools could be affected by state concussion laws.

Many larger schools in Minnesota and North Dakota have a partnership with a health-care provider that gives them an athletic trainer or physician at all varsity games.

But some smaller schools are already paying a hefty price.

Anderson said the Ada-Borup School District has spent more than $9,000 on new football helmets designed to reduce the risk of concussions.

Triplett said Richland for the first time in several years is employing an athletic trainer for all of its games at a cost of about $100 per game.

Many other rural North Dakota schools will likely be doing the same thing to comply with the state law. Many small communities previously relied on Emergency Medical Technicians and other first responders for medical issues at athletics events in the past.

Triplett said manufacturers are now recommending helmets get reconditioned every two years to help prevent concussions. The cost for reconditioning is about $30 per helmet.

Finley-Sharon/Hope-Page football coach Chad Kainz said he was forced to order 15 new helmets because the manufacturer recommended tossing helmets more than 10 years old.

"Everybody is erring on the side of caution now," Kainz said. "That's changed quite a bit. You talk to someone in their 40s, 50s or 60s and they would tell you that coaches were a little more hard-nosed years ago. But you have to do these things for the health of the child."

Another issue for North Dakota coaches is the vague wording of the law in regards to who is authorized to sign off on sending an athlete back onto the field following a concussion.

The law does not specify which medical professionals have diagnosis and treatment of concussions in their "scope of care."

A physician, EMT, athletic trainer or chiropractor could all fit the bill.

The NDHSAA has suggested that schools contact their state's attorney for clarification.

"Not all MDs are updated on this stuff," Vigen said. "And neither are some family practice physicians. We are hoping that most trainers have that clearance. But it's sort of a gray area."

Wheaton athletic director Tony Thiel has been the school's football coach for 14 years. This is his first year taking over the Wheaton-Herman-Norcross co-op, which formed this year.

So far, five of his players are out with concussions.

"It's the most concussions I've seen since I've been here," he said. "We had four or five concussions in my first 14 years here and now we have five already."

One of those players, he said, suffered the concussion at home. Thiel said his biggest worry with the new law and the concussion education is the effect it could have on parents.

His biggest worry is that any bruise, cut or injury, concussion-related or not, could lead to a more worry-filled society.

"I think it is a good thing, and I think it is something they want us to stress, but I think we don't need to get carried away with it," Thiel said. "We have to make sure our kids are not hurt and we have to watch out for our athletes. The legislature wants us to do that, but how far do you go?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heath Hotzler at (701) 241-5562.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548.