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When In Doubt, Sit Them Out

Washington Youth Soccer plays key role in passing landmark player-safety initiative

The 14th of May probably seemed like just another regular spring day to most of us, but it will go down in the history books as the day that youth sports in Washington changed forever. On that day, dozens of key community members, advocates, families and organizations - including Doug Andreassen, President of Washington Youth Soccer - watched proudly as Governor Christine Gregoire signed into legislation House Bill 1824 or, as it is more appropriately known, the Zackery Lystedt Law.

The origins of the law lie nearly three years earlier, in October of 2006. Then-13-year-old Zackery Lystedt went in for a routine tackle during his middle-school football game and suffered a blow to his head as he hit the ground. Zackery was seen holding his helmet while lying on the ground, and the referee called timeout to allow Zackery to be taken out of the game. With halftime nearing, Zackery was held out of the game for a couple more plays, but was returned to the game on the first play of the third quarter.

Zackery continued to play until the end of the game, only to collapse on the field minutes after the final whistle. Rushed to the hospital immediately, Zackery underwent life-saving surgery to stop his brain from hemorrhaging, and eventually fell into a month-long coma. Even after coming out of the coma, Zackery remained on a feeding tube for nine months; he is still in a wheelchair, nearly three years later.

For the first year after Zackery's traumatic brain injury, Richard Adler, Past President of the Brain Injury Association of Washington (BIAWA) and legal representative of the Lystedt family, spent time with the family beside Zackery's hospital bed, focused solely on Zackery's health and talking about the need to never have this happen to another child or family.

Having heard about Zackery and the injury, the Seattle Seahawks invited him, his family and Adler to a game the following year. A serendipitous event, Adler met Seahawks CEO Todd Leiweke and eventually added him to the growing list of advocates for public awareness and heightened safety in youth sports.

Having partnered with the Center for Disease Control and other medical and sports organizations during a public health campaign in the years prior to Zackery's trauma, Adler and the BIAWA kicked off another public awareness campaign in 2007 with the help of their original partners and their newest one, the Seahawks.

Backed with clipboards, posters, letters and information, the coalition reached out to thousands, encouraging coaches to talk to their players about the importance of safety. With the knowledge that 3.8 million sports and recreational-related concussions occur every year, the coalition continued their momentum and found other key supporters in the campaign, including Washington Youth Soccer, the WIAA, the Washington Athletic Trainers Association and Cannfield and Associates, a risk management group.

Two years after Zackery's injury, Adler and the coalition's member organizations had found some success in spreading the word about Zackery and others who had suffered similar trauma, but began to dialogue about the increasing need for a more comprehensive law to help prevent traumatic brain injuries.

Led by Adler and using the CDC's motto that "concussions are a brain injury and all brain injuries are serious," the coalition hired a lobbyist to help the group navigate the intricate legislative process and, ultimately, put a bill before the State Legislature.

With a concerted focus, the group began the legislative process in January of 2009. While the proposed bill included additional verbiage, the main focus of the bill was on education, prevention and safety. The bill put before the legislature last winter sought to, among other things:

  1. Require all school districts and athletic non-profit organizations to disseminate educational materials developed by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) in order to educate coaches, youth athletes and their parents of the nature and risk of concussion and head injury.
  2. Require an informational sheet to be signed by parents and youth athletes explaining the signs and symptoms of a concussion.
  3. Require that a youth athlete who is "suspected of sustaining a concussion or head injury" be removed from play. "When in doubt, sit them out."
  4. Require that a youth athlete who has been removed from play receive written clearance prior to returning to play from a licensed health care provider that is trained in the evaluation and management of concussion.

Considered the most enlightened and comprehensive return-to-play law in the United States, it took Olympia only five months to approve the Zackery Lystedt Law and set the precedent for other states to follow.

"May fourteenth was a great day for youth sports!" exclaimed Adler. "Sports will always go on; it will survive and thrive. This legislation ensures that youth sports will be safer in preventing injuries.

"My client and his family will know that their losses will help prevent other catastrophic traumatic brain injury from occurring," he continued. "We all owe them a special thank you for their courage and energy."

With this landmark legislation now in place, the coalition has turned its attention to Washington, D.C., to initiate work on a larger scale and one that would extend the Zackery Lystedt Law to schools across the United States that receive Federal money.

As those national efforts continue, local schools and organizations - including Washington Youth Soccer - have put in place processes to ensure compliance with the new law they helped champion.

The law's focus is of particular importance to Washington Youth Soccer, as it has been proven that more concussions occur in girls' soccer than any other sport. With its mission to "foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of the State of Washington's youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition," Washington Youth Soccer's focus on education and preventative efforts can be summed up thusly - that the safety of our young athletes is the number-one priority.

For more information on the Zackery Lystedt Law, visit wsysa.com.

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