By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS — The push to protect young athletes from sports-related concussions may soon extend beyond high school athletic fields and into the public parks used by private leagues and clubs that cater to young children.
On Friday, the Legislature's Commission on Education heard testimony supporting a measure that would require all youth football coaches in Indiana using municipally-owned parks or fields to be trained and certified in a player safety program backed by the National Football League.
The proposed legislation would put the onus of enforcement into the hands of local governments that may risk facing lawsuits if they allow uncertified coaches to use their facilities. Among those speaking in favor of the measure was two-time Super Bowl champion Roosevelt Colvin, who now coaches third- and fourth-graders on a tackle football team in Indianapolis.
Colvin said the lack of good training for the volunteers who coach league and club football puts children at risk for harm.
Of the 4.4 million children who play tackle football, an estimated 500,000 suffer concussions each season
"The things I see on a daily basis, in practice and in games, turns my stomach," Colvin said at a press conference before the hearing. "It's bigger than just concussions. I think everyone knows that a lot of parents, a lot of coaches are trying to live their dreams through these young men."
Indiana already has a law that requires high school coaches to be trained in concussion awareness. It requires them to pull a student-athlete from practice or play if they suspect the player has suffered a concussion. Those players can't return until they're cleared by a doctor. But the law only covers interscholastic sports.
State Sen. Travis Holdman, a Republican from Markle, wants to expand the law to cover all youth football coaches, including those who are part of leagues and clubs that play on public fields. He plans to revive a bill that died in the 2013 legislative session that would require all youth football coaches go through online training developed by the non-profit USA Football, the NFL-affiliated governing body for youth football.
Holdman said the legislation is needed because of the "insidious nature" of concussions and the long-term impact for young athletes who suffer head injuries. He acknowledged that Republican Gov. Mike Pence has called for a moratorium on more regulations.
"I have the same concerns about over-regulating. But when it comes to issues that have to do with children and young folks, I believe those young folks are exempt from that moratorium," Holdman said.
"We've got to do things that take care of those young kids."
USA Football's executive director Scott Hallenbeck, who testified at the hearing, said his organization can provide the online training at a cost of $5 for youth league coaches and $25 for school coaches. The training, called "Heads Up," focuses on preventing brain injuries by teaching coaches how to instruct their players to safely tackle an opponent. It also includes training in how to prevent heat strokes, one of the leading causes of death for young athletes.
Hallenbeck said more than 2,800 coaches have already been trained in the program.
"We're talking about a complex game to teach," Hallenbeck said. "With due respect to these volunteers, we know their hearts are in the right place. We know they are committed to this game. We just want to make sure when we're talking about coaching football, America's favorite sport, that they are doing it in the right way."
Hallenbeck said Heads Up training was developed, in part, in response to the declining number of children who were playing tackle football. His organization estimates youth participation dropped last year to about 2.82 million players from 3 million in 2011.
Also speaking in favor the proposed bill was Michael Duerson of Muncie, whose brother, former NFL player Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011. Michael Duerson said his brother suffered from a severe brain injury related to multiple concussions he had sustained during his playing years.
But Michael Duerson also called for the legislation to be broader so that it would cover all youth sports coaches. He said concussions are a leading injury in girls soccer. "And now we've got 3-year-olds playing soccer," he said.
Bobby Cox, the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, also spoke in favor of Holdman's proposal. He said it would provide "impetus" for the IHSAA to expand the safety training it already offers its member coaches.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.