Leigh Steinberg actually did have a “Jerry Maguire” moment. And his epiphany might be one of the factors that helped lead to new legislation being proposed by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, to protect young athletes.
It happened on what should have been one of the best days of his professional life, the famed sports agent told an audience in Sacramento on Tuesday. On Jan. 23, 1994, two of his clients—Steve Young and Troy Aikman—faced off as the starting quarterbacks in the NFC Championship game played between San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys.
That night, after the Cowboys’ victory, he visited Aikman as he lay alone in a darkened hospital room, where he was getting treatment for a concussion that knocked him out of the game in the 3rd quarter. Steinberg described how Aikman asked him a series of questions. “Where am I? Why am I here? Did I play football today?”
Steinberg said he told Aikman they’d won and were going to the Super Bowl.
“Five minutes passed,” Steinberg told the audience. “He looked at me and said ‘Where am I?’”
A fictionalized version of this kind of scene later ended up in the hit 1996 Tom Cruise film “Jerry Maguire,” which Steinberg helped inspire. Steinberg also led efforts to try to push the National Football League to do a better job protecting players who have suffered concussions.
Concussions eventually forced both Aikman and Young out of football—and Steinberg eventually backed away from directly representing players after seeing the effect of concussions on clients including other NFL quarterbacks, such as Warren Moon and Drew Bledsoe.
“I got to the point where I could no longer represent players because I felt like an enabler,” Steinberg said.
Now Steinberg is one of those hoping to push greater care for young athletes with concussions and other injuries. The issue of student athletes has also been in the news lately after the case of Mike Leach. The Texas Tech University football coach was fired over the holidays over his treatment of a player with a concussion.
Some advocates for better care and training of young athletes met with Hayashi after the morning panel sessions held at the Legislative Office Building across the street from the Capitol. Later that day, her staff confirmed that she would be carrying two bills.
The first, AB 1646, was submitted late in the day Tuesday. It adds head injuries, heat stroke, asthma, and other conditions to the skills that must be taught to school athletic coaches and trainers. It is similar to her AB 533, which got stuck in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in May.
“We need to do more to protect our kids, and we can do that by training the adults closest to them at the time of injury, like coaches,” Hayashi said. “We need to train coaches to be better able to recognize the symptoms of a concussion or serious injury. They can make all the difference in saving a student’s life.”
The companion bill, AB1647, will likely go into print by the end of the week. It will attempt to set new standards for “return to play” guidelines—such as those used when a player has suffered a concussion. It will also likely set new standards for certifying athletic trainers.
Even high school football players suffer concussions and potentially-damaging “sub-concussive” events on an ongoing basis, said Kevin Guskiewicz,PhD., an athletic trainer with the University of North Carolina. In a typical season, an average player can absorb 700 hits with a median force of 22 G’s of energy.
Guskiewicz said he’s hoping to push for better procedures to help diagnose head injuries and get players out of games during the post-concussion period, when there is the greatest risk for more injuries. Many concussions aren’t being spotted, he said.
“Let’s hope that we see the reported incidents of head injuries rising,” Guskiewicz said.
There are 400,000 concussions a year among high school athletes, according to the Alliance to Address the Youth Sports Safety Crisis in America. Guskiewicz said that these injuries are hard to diagnose, particularly when competitive players want to act like they’re fine so they can make a team or go back into a game. But concussions are even more damaging to younger people, he said—and the worst danger comes once a player has already had a recent concussion.
Other conditions likely to be a focus of legislation include heat stroke and undiagnosed heart problems. These conditions can also be hard to diagnose at the time, said athletic trainer Brendan McDermott, PhD., of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And there are times when seemingly sensible actions, like giving fluids to someone who seems exhausted or putting ice on a player who seems overheated, can lead to worse injury or even death.
McDermott called for having certified athletic trainers at practices, rather than just at games, because practices are where most serious injuries and deaths occur. He also called on schools to have needed equipment. For instance, he said, a standard cold water immersion tub used to help someone who has heat stroke costs only about $150. But a $12 kiddie pool will also do the job almost as well for most people.
“I don’t see that as a budget buster,” McDermott said.
But one item that might be is a heart defibrillator, which can cost up to $2,000 apiece. But one might have saved the life of Diane Claerbout’s son, Johannes, who died of an undiagnosed heart condition after riding his bike to work at the age of 25. She called for having defibrillators on-hand at school athletic practices and events. She also wants better health screening of athletes, noting that screening may have caught his problem if he had been tested during his career as a high school track athlete. She now works with the group ParentHeart Watch.
“We don’t screen our athletes,” Claerbout said. “We don’t really ask enough questions before kids start playing. It leads to tragic outcomes.”