It's now law in Minnesota: If young athletes show signs of a concussion, coaches must sideline them until they can get a medical all-clear.
Minnesota is joining a growing number of states that are treating concussions more seriously as researchers learn more about their long-term effects on the brain. While legislators and the governor continued to hip check each other -- rhetorically -- over the budget on Wednesday, several partisans took a timeout to celebrate the new law protecting student athletes.
"It's a brain injury, so it's very serious," said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the bill's sponsor. Hamilton joined Gov. Mark Dayton and other lawmakers at a ceremonial bill signing Wednesday. Dayton actually signed the bill into law last month. Wednesday's public signing was designed to raise awareness about the issue.
The new law requires that beginning this fall coaches remove athletes under 18 from sports events if they have symptoms of concussion. A health care provider would need to give them permission before they could suit up again.
The law also mandates that coaches undergo periodic training about concussions and ensures that parents have easy access to information regarding the risks. The bill initially required athletes and parents to sign a "concussion information form," but that provision was eliminated.
Most high school teams that play competitively fall under the Minnesota State High School League, which already has similar rules about removing players. The legislation extends those rules to private organizations and younger athletes.
Amid the fanfare, the center of attention at Wednesday's bill signing was 15-year-old Kayla Meyer of New Prague, who testified in support of the effort. Two hockey-related concussions left Meyer with persistent headaches and other neurological problems.
Student athletes, Meyer said, "just need to realize that their health is more important than the game sometimes. They need to really take care of themselves for the future."
Both the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have urged lawmakers in states nationwide to enact similar laws on concussions. More than 20 states now have such laws to protect youth athletes.
The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that about 1,000 athletes between 5 and 19 are hospitalized for sports-related concussions every year. The department has no figures available on the concussions for which the athlete is not hospitalized.
Symptoms of concussion can range from vomiting and loss of consciousness to headaches, confusion and fatigue.
Brian Johnson, who trains coaches for Minnesota Hockey, said today's youth coaches are under a lot of pressure to win games. That can lead to tough calls on the ice when a player takes a blow.
"Some coaches are going to think [the law] kind of handcuffs them, ties their hands," said Johnson, who advises coaches to remove players with possible concussions. "But I think at the same time it probably helps us, because you don't have to make that tough decision."
South Dakota-based Sanford Health was the primary force pushing for the legislation, which they also successfully passed in their home state and North Dakota. Cindy Morrison, vice president for Sanford's health policy, said Minnesota went further than the Dakotas by extending it to young athletes of all ages. "There have been other states that have taken multiple years to pass this legislation, and the legislation is less comprehensive than Minnesota's," said David King, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, a major supporter of the bill.
Sanford Health researcher Dr. Michael Bergeron, milling around the governor's reception room Wednesday, said the bill addresses a new understanding of concussions.
"What's more appreciated now is if you don't protect the brain physically and mentally during that window of vulnerability, the long-term consequences can be permanent or even catastrophic," Bergeron said.
Surrounded by lawmakers and the governor in one of the most austere rooms of the Capitol, Meyer added, "They didn't include this part in the fourth-grade field trip."
Eric Roper • 651-222-1210 Twitter: @StribRoper