High school football player fights concussion law, plays in championship game

(KRQE Photo)

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – An apparent concussion and state law didn’t stop a New Mexico high school football player from playing in his state championship game. His family fought the law in court, and got a judge to let him play.

New Mexico law regarding school athlete head injury and safety protocols state a student athlete with a concussion may return to the game after sitting out for no less than a week.

Because of that law, a star running back was told he wouldn’t get to play in his school’s championship game. That didn’t sit well with him, and he took his case all the way to court.

When Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho found out their football team was going to the 6A state championship, everyone in the school was pumped. However, the Storm’s star running back was told he couldn’t play in Saturday’s game, since he suffered a concussion at a game less than a week before.

“Our trainer did identify a concussion,” Bruce Carver, Athletic Director for Rio Rancho Public Schools, told KRQE. “He felt like he was unconscious for up to 20-30 seconds from what I understand.”

KRQE is not naming the student due to medical privacy.

State law passed in 2010 says a student athlete who suffers a concussion can only participate in the school athletic activity “No sooner than one week after the student athlete has received a brain injury, and no longer exhibits any sign, symptom or behavior consistent with a brain injury.”

“You know, he put his heart and soul into the season and he’s not gonna be able to play,” Carver recalled. He described the athlete as a “fine young man, heck of a player, made a lot of contributions, an overachiever.”

But that didn’t stop the student and his family from fighting the law in court last week.

Court documents show the family argued the school trainer’s assessment. They argued a private doctor couldn’t find “signs or symptoms of a brain injury.”

An Albuquerque District Court judge signed off on an injunction to allow the student to play in the state championship.

“We don’t agree with the decision, but we honored the decision,” explained Beth Pendergrass, spokeswoman for Rio Rancho Public Schools.

“We were given a judge’s order that we were not to stand in the way of the student athlete playing,” said Carver.

Carver said they left the final call up to Cleveland’s head coach after receiving the judge’s decision. He said the coach allowed the student on the field for just one play during Saturday’s championship game.

But some argue that was a bad call; that parents shouldn’t have pushed it in the first place.

“It could cause some damage in reference to people neglecting the protocol,” Marcus Amos, with Prevention Education for Athletes, told KRQE. Amos, a professor in South Carolina, educates athletes on health issues and life skills.

“No matter how much research you do, we’re never gonna be able to make a helmet that’s going to prevent concussions,” said Amos. “Reducing play is the next best thing.”

Experts said the law is in place for a reason, and the risk of further injury isn’t worth it.

Dr. Tony Salazar, an Albuquerque MD told KRQE the state’s one week law is lenient. He said especially if an athlete loss consciousness in a head-on collision, it should heighten concern for concussions.

“I think we’re more educated and we’re trying to do a better job of recognizing head injuries,” said Carver. Carver said the district is proactive with trainers to protect the health and safety of each athlete.

The Cleveland running back argued in court that playing in the championship was a “once-in-a lifetime” chance. Court documents point out he “scored close to 20 touchdowns, and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards.”

Cleveland won the state championship, but what may happen in the long run for injured athletes is unclear.

KRQE spoke with the student’s attorney, who said the family did not want to comment.

Democratic Senator Michael Sanchez, who was behind the 2010 concussion law, told KRQE he’s disappointed with the judge’s decision on this case. He’s worried it may set a dangerous precedent.

The Rio Rancho School District Athletic Director said he’s had parents argue for their student to play sports even with a broken nose or hand. However, he said as far as he’s aware, taking the issue to court is a first.

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