Commentary

Political football

A brain-saving bill gets hung up in Congress

Originally Published: January 6, 2011
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Some 400,000 school-age kids each year suffer a concussion. Worse, 40.5% of high school athletes return to the field too soon. Worse still, only 10 states currently have sports concussion safety laws, and they vary widely in strictness and enforcement.

But now several bills that target the epidemic are working their way through Congress. The strongest of the bunch is the Protecting Student-Athletes from Concussions Act, sponsored by Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.), a former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. It requires educating students about brain injury and keeping injured athletes out of play until cleared, in writing, by a health-care professional. "The harm befalling kids, both athletically and academically, can't continue," says Miller. "We want the states to handle this, but there has to be a deadline to get it done."

More than 100 organizations support Miller's bill, including the NFL, but that hasn't shielded it from the partisan meat grinder. Not one Republican, including newly elected Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) -- a former Pro Bowl tackle who suffered multiple concussionshas stepped forward to support it. Runyan's office told The Mag that while he "strongly supports" plans to increase student-athlete awareness and "looks forward" to being an experienced voice in the debate, "he ran on a pledge to closely scrutinize every tax dollar being spent and every mandate being handed down by politicians in Washington, no matter how well-intentioned." Asked what further information he would need to hone his opinion, Runyan declined to comment.

So for now, Miller's bill remains bottled up in committee, and that's a shame. "If families can't get justice on the field or from the government," the lawmaker says, "they'll find an attorney who will ask the question nobody wants to answer: What did you do to protect these children?"

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.