EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Legislation for federal funding to help protect student athletes from concussions got the National Football League's backing Monday in the shadow of the stadium where the Super Bowl will be played this weekend.
NFL Senior Vice President Adolpho Birch joined two New Jersey lawmakers in support of legislation drafted following the 2008 death of a New Jersey high school football player.
The proposal by Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Bill Pascrell involves national concussion guidelines currently under development for schools and youth sport programs by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The legislation would authorize a 5-year grant program to bring those guidelines to school sports programs nationwide.
The bill would authorize $5 million in first-year funding, with additional funds to be provided as necessary for the remaining four years. It would be used to help states train athletic staff and help ensure schools have adequate medical staff coverage and can implement the CDC guidelines expected to be established by next year.
Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, joined the lawmakers for a news conference at an East Rutherford high school a little over a mile from MetLife Stadium, which will host the Super Bowl on Sunday. Several student athletes from the Henry P. Becton Regional High School's Wildcats football squad — a few of whom spoke about concussions suffered during play — joined them at the podium.
“In the NFL, player health and safety is a priority for us,” Birch said. “But we need to be clear that it's not just our players who we're thinking about, and who we're worried about, it's all players, it's athletes at all levels, in all sports. We believe that youth sports should be a particular focus.”
The NFL's support for the legislation comes as it tries to settle a lawsuit by thousands of its former players over its handling of concussions. The two sides have negotiated a proposed $765 million deal to settle thousands of lawsuits consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia. Amid concerns the fund may not last the promised 65 years, plaintiffs' lawyers are preparing for a fairness hearing expected sometime this year.
Sen. Menendez said federal funding was needed at the school sports level “to ensure that every child who takes the field is properly protected and that their parents have peace of mind.”
The Contact Act was drafted following the October 2008 death of Montclair High School football player Ryne Dougherty. The 16-year-old Dougherty suffered a brain hemorrhage and died after his family said he was prematurely returned to action following a concussion.
The Contact Act hasn't been enacted, but Pascrell said he hoped the CDC guidelines and the NFL's endorsement would help get it passed.
“They were a reluctant partner in the beginning,” Pascrell said of the NFL, “but they've jumped into this in a very positive way.”