I've let it be known through the years when I thought the TSSAA has made poor decisions - like moving Spring Fling to Memphis and taking the state football championships to Cookeville. Those are two decisions I still think caused a step backward in facilities and atmosphere for the athletes involved.
However, as someone who routinely deals with the governing bodies for high school athletics in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, I can say without a doubt that the people calling the shots at the TSSAA are much more willing to take chances and be pioneers when it comes to change in prep sports.
Wednesday's unanimous vote by the TSSAA's Board of Control to implement a new, more stringent concussion rule was proof that second-year executive director Bernard Childress is serious about the safety of this state's athletes. Childress had spoken with coaches and medical doctors for about a year before recommending the new rule, which states that any player showing symptoms of a concussion must be removed from the game by a coach or official and cannot return until he or she has been cleared by a health care professional.
The rule has taken away the tough decision for a coach or athletic trainer on the sideline of whether the kid simply got his bell rung and can return to the game or actually has a concussion and needs to sit out. I've seen countless examples of a player looking wobbly after a big hit but moments later assuring the coaches he can return. No coach wants to jeopardize the health of one of his young players, but during the emotion of the game, if the player isn't showing lingering effects he likely will be sent back onto the field.
Even when a coach is overly cautious, potentially deadly scenarios can happen without the player who suffered the head injury being examined by a doctor.
In a 2009 football season opener, East Hamilton sophomore linebacker Clinton Harris suffered a concussion against Signal Mountain. For the next two weeks Hurricanes coach Ted Gatewood kept Harris off the practice field and out of games. Harris had been symptom-free for much of that time and Gatewood allowed him to return for a game against Lancaster Christian at Finley Stadium. But during a pregame tackling drill, Harris began to complain of dizziness, a headache and the urge to just lie down and fall asleep.
Harris was taken by ambulance to Erlanger, where it was discovered he needed emergency surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain.
"This is a 6-foot-1, 180-pound kid who is a good-looking athlete," Gatewood said. "He went from being excited about playing again to the next thing I know he's on the bench and just didn't look right at all. It was the scariest thing I've ever had happen, not just as a coach but in my life. I felt helpless. Fortunately we were just a few blocks from the hospital, because I found out later that if he would've waited much longer things could have gotten really bad.
"The parents and school system entrusts us as coaches to make sure the kids are safe. The bottom line is that's somebody's kid. It's a life and I don't want that on my conscience. It's not worth taking the risk, so I'm really glad the TSSAA made this rule change so we don't have to wonder on the sideline if we should play a kid or not.
"I could probably speak for everybody when I say this is one rule change we all can be glad for."
E-mail Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org