Any time a young athlete suffers a concussion, there are always delicate details surrounding his or her return. When the aforementioned player suffers the stipulated injury in a state semifinal, just six days before the title game, the conditions behind their return are even more murky.
That’s certainly the case surrounding Shawn Nieto, the starting running back for Cleveland High School in New Mexico. As reported by the Rio Rancho Observer and Albuquerque Journal, Nieto suffered an expected concussion in his team’s state semifinal victory against Mayfield; the injury was diagnosed by the team’s medical trainer after examining the running back. By state regulation, that concussion required Nieto to sit out for at least seven days, a term that made him ineligible for Cleveland’s state final against Eldorado.
Yet Nieto was allowed to play in the final game of his junior season because his parents filed a temporary restraining order in a local court, barring his school from implementing New Mexico House Bill 101, which establishes the state’s concussion protocol.
“Once our trainer (Jeff Archuleta) identified the concussion, I backed him 100 percent,” Rio Rancho athletic director Bruce Carver told the Observer. “The parents took it to court on Friday and got a TRO; the judge ruled he could play. We were given a court order that the district was not to interfere.
“Our superintendent and I agreed that a judge’s ruling over-rules a director’s director. We told (coach Heath Ridenour) to play Nieto if he wanted to … totally his decision.”
As it turns out, the court’s decision was predicated largely on a medical evaluation by Dr. Karen Ortiz, who saw Nieto three days after the semifinal game and found no direct proof of any head injury. However, in the days since that ruling was provided to the courts, Ortiz has rescinded her own opinion, citing a lack of prior information in ruling that Nieto could safely return to competition.
“Had I understood that there was a loss of consciousness, I would have never provided medical clearance,” Ortiz wrote to in a letter to Rio Rancho Public Schools and the NMAA. “Allowing Mr. Shawn Nieto to return to play at this time may result in a wide range of long-term neuropsychologic disorders as well as possible catastrophic brain injury, unfortunately.”
As it turns out, Nieto did play in the finale, though only very briefly, and not in his usual capacity as a running back. (The Storm won the game 48-35 against Eldorado of Albuquerque and the 6A state title.)
Still, the fact that he and his family were able to circumvent the established concussion protocol is troubling both in the fact that it happened and that a top athlete and his parents would both lobby to work around it.