Every so often, something happens in the course of amateur and youth sports that makes one pause….and makes one think about whether we as sports parent really do have our priorities in order.
Let ask you this: if your son, a HS football player, had been diagnosed with a possible concussion, would you allow him to go back and play in next week’s game?
Would it make any difference that the next game was for the state championship? That your son was the star running back on an undefeated team? That your son has assured you repeatedly that he’s absolutely fine?
I want you to think about that dilemma. Because we all know for a lot of parents, especially when it comes to the fuzzy world of concussions, this is a very, very difficult situation to find oneself in.
Now, let me give you more of the details>
Shawn Nieto is a top running back at Cleveland HS in Rio Rancho, NM. He’s a junior there. He’s also 5 foot 5, and weighs 140 pounds. That being said, he rushed for more than 900 yards this season and 18 TD’s.
A couple of weeks ago, in a state semifinal game, he was tackled hard, and there was direct and solid contact from a defensive player to Shawn’s helmet. As the play came to an end, everybody got up except Nieto. The Cleveland HS trainers ran onto the field and Shawn’s parents in the stands held their breath.
The trainers determined that Shawn was unconscious – that he blacked for 20-30 seconds before coming around. He was helped to his feet, and walked off under his own power to the sidelines.
Shawn says he never lost consciousness — that he had simply had the wind knocked out of him, and he was taking his time catching his breath.
On the sidelines, the team trainers administered a memory test, and Shawn correctly recalled two of the three words he was given. He also passed a balance test. In other words, as far as he was concerned,he was ready to go.
But from the school’s perspective, especially in light of the new state laws regarding athletes and concussions, not only was Shawn prohibited from playing any more that day, but under New Mexico law, he now fell under the state mandated concussion protocol, which meant that he had to sit out for at least seven days before practicing or playing again.
That meant, of course, that Shawn would miss the state championship football game, which was to be played in 7 days.
WOULD YOU LET YOUR SON PLAY?
Shawn was crushed. He insisted he was fine. He insisted that he didn’t suffer a concussion. He pointed out that after the semi-final game, he drove back with the team on a three-hour bus ride home, and then drove his car home from the school. Plus no headaches.
So, what did his parents do?
They of course sued the school district to let their son play in the championship game!
Among other preparations for their day in court, the family had their son see a doctor the very next day, who examined him and said he showed normal cognitive function. The parents then took that medical evaluation, and got their day in court in front of a state district judge, just a day before the big game.
The judge heard the case, and read the doctor’s evaluation. Plus he could see for himself that Shawn wasn’t outwardly injured. Even more, the school district didn’t bother sending anyone to present their side of the case. That’s to understand why, but I guess as far as they were concerned, they were just following the law of New Mexico.
The judge made his decision. He lifted the ban on the kid playing.
The next day, Shawn Nieto suited up and was ready to play in Cleveland High’s state championship game and to defend their undefeated season.
But in the intervening hours, the physician who examined Shawn that week heard about the case, and she was flabbergasted. She wrote in a letter that the parents had never told her that Shawn had been ruled unconscious the week before. If she had known that crucial fact, the doctor claimed, she would have never cleared him to play!
THE COACHES TO THE RESCUE
And now, here’s the curious twist in this case.
Shawn’s coaches who clearly had been watching all of this – said to Shawn that he hadn’t practiced all week, and as such, decided not to start him, or for that matter, to play him. He got in the game on one play, a kickoff late in the 4th quarter. It would seem that all of his legal wrangling had really not gotten him to where he wanted to go.
Meanwhile, his team won 48-35. And in addition, Shawn’s replacement ran for 200 yards on the day and scored a touchdown.
Law professor Doug Abrams discussed this case at length on WFAN this morning, and made it clear that this lawsuit, which was decided in favor of the athlete, should not be viewed as a legal precedent for other parents to follow. It was hard to understand why the school district didn’t bother to even defend their actions, and because of that, the judge really didn’t have much but to allow the kid to play.
But Professor Abrams made it clear that it would be difficult to think that other Moms and Dads, eager for their son or daughter to play when told not to, could use this case as legal doctrine.
But more than that, both Doug and I salute the coaching staff at Cleveland HS for having the common sense to realize that yes, kids do get hurt playing sports, and especially with concussions in football, it’s always much smarter to be on the side of caution. Nieto might indeed have been perfectly fine to play in the next game, but the trainers felt he had been knocked cold. That was their professional opinion. And the state law made it clear that an athletes can not play again for another 7 days.
So the coaches can up with the right solution. Yes, Shawn Nieto could suit up for the game, but even though it was a championship game and he was the starting halfback, the coaches made the right call: they kept him out of the game except for one play. After all, just suppose Nieto had been hit again during that game, and had suffered a concussion again. Then, he would be looking at his HS career coming to an end (remember, he’s only a junior).
Bottom line? The coaches should be saluted for having the right approach here, even when the athlete and his parents may have lost their vision as to what’s the right and safe thing to do.