Nearly a decade has passed since the Legislature adopted New Mexico’s first law governing how concussions should be prevented, diagnosed and treated for youth playing sports in schools.

But for youth playing non-scholastic sports—which includes huge numbers of young people in Santa Fe and around the state—there was nothing on the books until 2017, long after the concussion issue had roiled the NFL and sparked a national debate about football safety for adults and kids alike. And only now are New Mexico officials proposing regulations to support the updated state law—regulations that do not include any way to enforce them.

Residents will get a chance to weigh in on the proposed regulations, drafted by the New Mexico Department of Health and the Brain Injury Advisory Council, at a hearing on Tuesday at 10 am at the department’s Harold Runnels Building in Santa Fe.

Among  the new regulations’ requirements is that all coaches for non-scholastic sports teams would have to review brain injury education materials once a year and pass a test on the information, to be officially included with their record. And athletes ages 11 and older and their parents would be required to sign a form saying that they took the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s approved online concussion training. 

The regulations would also put non-scholastic sports “return to play” protocols in line with those used by school districts. That means athletes diagnosed with concussions while playing for a sports team outside of school would have to wait 10 days before being allowed to participate again. A written release from a medical professional also would be required. 

Toby Rosenblatt, the Health Department’s Injury and Behavior Epidemiology Bureau chief, says the proposed regulations are a positive step forward “because [athletes] will be informed about dangerous concussions and the result of concussions before they start playing, and their parents will too.

“Concussions will be recognized sooner, kids will be taken out of play sooner and kids won’t come back until they’ve recovered,” Rosenblatt adds. “One of the problems is secondary concussions, which occur when [athletes] go back to play too quickly. That’s why the time out was extended from seven to 10 days, and that also applies to non-scholastic.”
Although scholastic and non-scholastic sports now share legal requirements, enforcement is another matter. The Health Department has no planned mechanism to ensure teams are following the rules. That’ll be up to coaches, parents, athletes, the leaders of non-scholastic sports leagues and medical professionals. 
The differences don’t stop there.

Athletic trainers, who are licensed medical professionals and can more quickly and easily spot a concussion, are required at school-sanctioned sporting events. That won’t be the case in recreational league games.

A recent two-year study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington Medicine’s Sports Health and Safety Institute found concussions are more likely to be reported with an athletic trainer present.

Gloria Faber, executive director of New Mexico Youth Soccer, says the organization puts the “burden” of spotting concussions on the referees, parents and coaches. 
“It’s never going to take care of any and all concussions,” Faber tells SFR. “We’ll follow our process and the player may say, ‘Now I can go to my hockey game.’ We can’t protect them against all of that. What we try to do in our world is be very diligent about the process and trying to identify a concussion.” 

Whether to require so-called “baseline testing” is yet another difference in how concussions will be dealt with in the schools versus non-school sports. Essentially, it’s an exam conducted by a trained health care professional before an athlete starts a season to assess cognitive function, such as memory, balance, ability to concentrate and how quickly the athlete thinks and solves problems. When a concussion has possibly occurred, they can take the test again and see how they measure up against their “baseline.”

The proposed regulations for non-scholastic sports don’t mention baseline testing.
New Mexico Youth Soccer doesn’t use it because it can be “exploited” and “isn’t reliable,” Faber says. 

"Kids are maturing so quickly that a baseline test a year ago may not apply to what their current baseline would be," she adds.

The league used a baseline testing pilot program in the past but ultimately discontinued it. 

The Santa Fe Public School District still provides and relies upon optional baseline testing for some of its football players through a contract with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

Capital High School Football Head Coach Bill Moon would prefer the district abandon it. 

I don’t think it has any value because it doesn’t follow scientific modeling,” Moon says. “No double blind test. No control group … If I were going to do [baseline testing], I’d have … different dates, times, diets, things happening in life. Taking the first test does not protect my child. It has no effect.”

Moon explains that if one of his players takes a hard hit on the field, he relies on being able to spot symptoms.  
“I look at the kid; I talk to the kid. That first [baseline] test is absolutely irrelevant on that hypothetical Friday night,” Moon says.