The Illinois High School Association approved a new policy Tuesday requiring athletes who leave a game with concussions to be medically cleared before returning to practice or playing in future games.
IHSA's board approved the new policy to tighten up its protocol for handling concussions after years of news about the damaging impacts of head injuries on athletes.
The old policy for Illinois high school athletes, instituted just last year, required that athletes in any sport who left a game with a head injury be cleared by a doctor or a trainer consulting with a physician before they return, but it didn't call for any follow-up in the days after the injury.
"The more we learn about concussions, the more we realize the long-term effects of these injuries and how important follow-up is for student-athletes," IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said.
Concussions and their long-term debilitating effects on athletes have made news in recent years, particularly among professional football and hockey players. But stories about serious and even fatal injuries suffered by high school players are becoming more common.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, the umbrella group for state-level a school sports governing bodies like the IHSA, estimates that about 140,000 students who play high school sports have concussions every year. Football players are the most likely to have concussions, the group says, but athletes who play lacrosse, soccer, wrestling and other sports often have them, too.
While governing bodies have in some cases weighed in -- Texas recently passed a new rule -- lawmakers are taking a look at concussions, too.
Legislation passed by the Illinois House and waiting Senate action would require written permission from a doctor before a concussed athlete could return to a game. And Chicago's City Council in January passed an ordinance that makes schools now exempt from water and sewer charges pay up if they let kids play sports with concussions.
The new IHSA policy requires says that players who leave a game with head injuries and can't return must be cleared in the days that follow by either a doctor or a certified trainer consulting with a doctor.
Scott Hamilton is the head coach and athletic director at Unity High School in Tolono, a small town just south of Champaign.
He suspects most if not all of the 700 or so Illinois high schools that play football have trainers at those games.
"Most schools, where they're going to run into problems is lower-level events and some of the sports that aren't covered by athletic trainers," he said, explaining that cost could be an issue for some schools. "It can become kind of a hardship, but this day and age, regardless of what sport you're in, it's something you're going to have to guard against."
The new policy shouldn't change much at Unity, he said, which has been part of a program in which the University of Illinois and the local Carle Foundation hospital have studied concussions the past few years. Players played with sensors in their helmets that measured the severity of the hits to players' heads.
All of Unity's players leave games any time they take a hard hit to the head, and they're tested the next day and, in some cases, again and again for days or even weeks before they're cleared to play again, Hamilton said.
"The number one thing that hopefully this will do is just make a greater awareness to people," he said, explain that coaches and parents are becoming more familiar with the problem of concussions. "I think the game itself has changed with this education."