Gov. Murphy signs legislation strengthening New Jersey high school student-athlete and cheerleader concussion protocols

Gov. Phil Murphy last week signed legislation designed to strengthen concussion protocols for high school student-athletes and cheerleaders with the goal of ensuring they can safely return to academic and sports activities after suffering such head injuries.

Under the legislation, of which Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, were first prime sponsors, student-athletes and cheerleaders who suffer a concussion would be prohibited from returning to competition until they have first resumed regular school activities and are no longer experiencing symptoms of the injury while in school.

Assembly members Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, and Mila Jasey, D-Essex/Morris, and Senator Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, were also primary sponsors of the legislation.

The legislation requires the Department of Education to revise its athletic head injury safety training program to include information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) graduated “Return to Play Progression” recommendations, and requires school districts to revise their written policy concerning the prevention and treatment of sports-related concussions and other head injuries.

The new law also mandates that student-athletes and cheerleaders who suffer a concussion or are suspected of having sustained a concussion or other head injury during competition or practice be evaluated by a physician and receive clearance from their doctor before returning to action.

According to the CDC, “Children and teens who continue to play while having concussion symptoms, or who return to play too soon—while the brain is still healing —have a greater chance of getting another concussion.”

A repeat concussion, according to the CDC, that occurs while the brain is still healing from the first injury can affect a child or teen for a lifetime or even be fatal.

“Medical science continues to educate us on the dangers of concussions and the long-term effects they can have on those who do not properly manage their concussions,” Diegnan said.

“High school athletes are the most at-risk population to sustain a concussion. With an estimated 62,000 high school students sustaining concussions every year, it is our responsibility to ensure the proper safety protocols are in place for schools to effectively manage the health of their student-athletes.”

Legislation Diegnan previously introduced regarding concussion, sudden cardiac arrest, and exertional heat stroke has helped make New Jersey the country’s leader in health and safety policies for high school student-athletes, according to the Korey Stringer Institute’s 2018 and 2019 national rankings.

Diegnan sponsored and authored legislation regarding the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s current concussion policy, the New Jersey State Department of Education’s current policy on sudden cardiac arrest in student-athletes and the state’s current law requiring all schools to have automated external defibrillators on site along with an emergency action plan relating to sudden cardiac events.

A bill Diegnan introduced, and which was signed into law in 2010, provided New Jersey with among the nation’s most stringent guidelines to protect student-athletes who suffered a concussion. It required the development of interscholastic athletic head injury safety training programs, mandated certain measures to protect student-athletes with concussions, and required continuing education about concussions for athletic trainers.

In reaction to Murphy signing Diegnan’s most recent bill, Christina M. Emrich, MS, LAT, ATC, and governmental affairs committee chair for the Athletic Trainers’ Society of New Jersey, said, “We are happy to see this final piece of the Senator’s health and safety legislative package be completed.

“The (CDC’s) gradual return to play progression has been developed through extensive research and will ensure that all student-athletes that sustain a concussion are managed appropriately for not only their return to school, but for their return to sports safely as well.”

Under the legislation (S-225/A-679), the return of the concussed student-athlete or cheerleader would be contingent upon the CDC’s progressions for return to play, which currently include six graduated steps (the legislation accounts for any subsequent changes or updates to the CDC’s recommendations).

Currently, the CDC’s progression recommendations address time frames for participating in light aerobic activity, moderate activity, heavy activity, non-contact activity, practice with full contact, and competition.

“Updating our laws to protect all of our student-athletes who participate in school sports,” Diegnan said, “is our top priority.”

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