DALLAS – A state lawmaker who wants to make concussion screenings as routine as physicals in Texas public school athletics has taken direct aim at football.
State Rep. Eddie Lucio III filed a bill last week that would limit high school teams to one full-contact practice per week.
The Brownsville Democrat admits the plan is a little shy on details, including what qualifies as such a workout. He plans to discuss the bill with the Texas High School Coaches Association.
"The sports movies of the past have guys standing in one of those circles and going head-to-head," Lucio said. "The harder they hit each other helmet-to-helmet, the tougher they seem. But what we know now from a science standpoint and from a medical standpoint is that's horrible."
While those scenes still play out on practice fields in Texas, they're probably the exception rather than the norm, said Euless Trinity coach Steve Lineweaver, who has won three championships in Class 5A, the state's highest classification.
"From the old days in the '50s and '60s where you tried to make men out of them every day … I'm not aware of that as much, of the coaching of the teams that I know about," Lineweaver said. "How you can legislate that, I don't know."
Before proposing practice restrictions, Lucio refiled a bill requiring cognitive tests that could be used to determine an athlete's return from a concussion. He originally floated the legislation for the 2011 session but didn't get far and said he settled for adding components in a separate bill that created concussion panels but didn't mandate any changes.
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Because the bill would require school districts or athletes to pay for testing, Lucio says passage could be difficult. The lawmaker says his office's research shows that initial tests run between $5 and $10, while follow-up screenings can be up to $15.
The Stephenville school district pays $500 to test junior high athletes and another $500 for those in high school, said athletic trainer Mike Carroll. He said those fees cover about 450 athletes, and testing is done online. A Fort Worth medical facility handles the Stephenville screenings.
The University Interscholastic League, the governing body for Texas public school sports, requires physicals every two years, and Carroll said Stephenville does cognitive testing on the same schedule. Carroll says most large districts in the state already have a cognitive screening process, but Lucio says he's thinking more of smaller or economically disadvantaged schools.
"My concern is it shouldn't just be those with the means who get access to safeguards that are going to protect their physical and mental health," said Lucio, the son of state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. "It should be anybody who plays high school football. If this is a cost that we absorb now but it becomes part of the standard operation costs that every football team just takes into account when creating their budgets, that's what we're trying to do."
Lucio said he decided to propose a restriction on full-contact workouts after coming across a Purdue study that suggested many high school players were diagnosed with cognitive impairment even though they didn't have a concussion. The study said continuing research could lead to safety guidelines that would limit the number of hits a player takes each week.
Lucio, whose wife is pregnant with the couple's first son, echoed recent comments from President Barack Obama, who said he would "think long and hard" before letting a son play football. Lucio also pointed to the presence of concussion testing in the major pro sports leagues.
"If your most experienced and well-trained athletes are being given these tools to protect themselves, why wouldn't we do that to our most vulnerable athletes who are beginning to learn the games as well?" Lucio said.
Carroll, the Stephenville trainer, said he has one coaching friend who is outraged over the prospect of being told how to coach and another who says full-contact restrictions won't matter because the team doesn't practice that way. Stephenville just won a state championship and "probably didn't have five contact practices the last month that we played," Carroll said.
Trinity's Lineweaver said many coaches started easing up – "Practice smarter is what we call it" – before concussions became such a hot topic. He said coaches generally are more concerned with keeping players healthy during the season.
"You've got to prepare them enough for the collision in this sport," Lineweaver said. "You've got to prepare them to where they're confident. If they're not confident, that's when they get hurt. But on the other hand, you don't brutalize them during the week."