Personal choice, even when dangerous

In 2009 Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington State affixed her signature to House Bill 1824 and, so doing, passed it into law. Known popularly as the Zachary Lystedt law, this bill requires that young athletes who were suspected of concussion were to be medically cleared before returning to play. This bill applied to private organizations using public fields as well as all public youth sports organizations and it set a strong standard of care to address a growing problem.

I know as well as anyone how vulnerable young athletes can be to making poor decisions in the heat of competition. I was one myself, and because of a traumatic brain injury I could not return to the field of play. Had I had the choice alone, I likely would have charged back into athletics without fear of the consequences. Of course it is the responsibility of adults – coaches and parents – to act as moderating influences in these situations. The requirement that young athletes who might be at risk of serious injury be removed from play is well-founded and necessary.

However, the bill overreaches in its subsequent requirements. Health decisions must remain the domain of the individual, and in the case of minors, their parents or guardians. By requiring the written consent of a medical professional to return to play, the Zacahry Lystedt law empowers them to make health decisions for the patients. This is an unreasonable and unethical requirement. A doctor’s role is not to dictate their patient’s life. Nor does the state have the ability or right to monitor its citizens so as to insulate them from every risk.

Naturally, these pronouncement are complicated by the fact that the people at risk are children. But, with thought, a balance can be found between reasonable protections for young athletes and the prerogative of individuals to make their own decisions. For this reason I would amend point 4 of RCW 28A.600.190 to read “A youth athlete who has been removed from play may not return to play until the athlete is evaluated by a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussion. If a youth athlete is judged to have suffered a concussion they may only return to play with the consent of their parents or guardian after all parties have met with a licensed health care provider to discuss the risk and symptoms of concussions.” This change removes an undue power of medical professionals to make health decisions for their patients, but maintains the informed consent and reasonable precaution necessary to protect youth athletes from ignorance or zealousness.

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