Behind the Scenes: Updating Oklahoma’s Concussion Law

14368651_780476772759_2917763057278991578_nOn June 6, 2016, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law SB 1164 which in common terms is simply known as the concussion bill. Governor Fallin’s signature on this bill completes a two year journey and gut wrenching defeat to update legislation in 2014.  On November 1st, SB 1164 officially went into effect and now covers all youth and high school sports organizations across the state of Oklahoma. As 2017 begins, I want to reflect on the process that we went through to make this happen and encourage you along your journey to protect youth athletes in your communities.

Several people have asked me about the process of getting SB 1164 passed and how they could go about changing their own concussion laws.  The most common question I’m asked is “how did you go about changing the concussion law?”  There is no simple answer to this question as it required the commitment of a number of individuals working together in a process that involved many moving parts.  That being said, based on my experience I want to share several key things to keep in mind if you are thinking about updating or writing a new concussion law for your state or community.

FINDING YOUR ALLIES AND KNOWING YOUR OPPOSITION

In order to achieve something as monumental as updating an existing law, it is important to have a group of people with a common goal working together as the amount of time, organization, communication, knowledge, and connections needed throughout the process can be quite overwhelming.

A good way to start building this team is by establishing contact and building rapport with both local and well-known advocacy groups. In the case of the Oklahoma concussion bill, it was imperative that the Oklahoma Athletic Trainers’ Association (OATA) was involved. I was encouraged to find that the individuals in the OATA also recognized the need for an updated concussion law.  The legislation needed to reflect the current knowledge and research related to concussions to ensure protection for Oklahoma athletes. One important member of the OATA is our very own professional panel members, Ron Walker.  I was fortunate to be able to work alongside him to affect change in Oklahoma.  I can’t thank Ron enough for all he has done in Oklahoma. Ron was the driving force behind Oklahoma’s 2010 initial concussion legislation.

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Oklahoma State Captiol in the Spring of 2016

In terms of individuals within the legal system, most local and state-wide advocacy groups have a relationship with a lobbyist who works with matters related to the legislature. Without a lobbyist in your corner it might be more difficult to get a bill introduced or sponsored by a Senator or Representative. However, if you are able to establish a professional relationship with a member of the legislature then that is helpful too. The lobbyist that assisted us in our process was Lisette Barnes who owns a government relations and public affairs firm, Barnes Consulting, LLC. She specializes in “the representation of client interests before the Oklahoma Legislature, the Office of the Governor and various state and local governing bodies.” Lisette was wonderful, she always kept us in the loop on where the bill was in the legislative process and what we should expect at different points in the process.

In addition to establishing rapport with your allies, it is imperative that you identify and research potential opposition. It is highly unlikely that you won’t encounter opposition during this process so it is vital that you understand other viewpoints. This may involve speaking with those who hold opposing views and creating a line of open communication. Creating enemies will only make accomplishing change more difficult.

In 2014, the main opposition we encountered was from a few youth sports organizations as they didn’t think it was necessary to require volunteer coaches to undergo concussion training and education.  While it seems like this requirement would be common sense to those of us who are advocating for change, the fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to be on the same page or coming from the same place as you.  You will face opposition, the key is to meet the opposition with an open mind instead of shutting them out. Not only does shutting them out create additional tension and stress, you lose the opportunity to learn from others and to prepare your counterpoints for arguments presented against legislation change. It also shows that we are not trying to create an “us” versus “them” situation, we are simply trying to protect athletes from the potential life-long ramifications of brain injury.

LANGUAGE IS KEY

The hardest and, quite possibly, the most frustrating part of writing a new law or updating an existing law is the language you use for the bill. If you have limited or no experience in political affairs, like me, then it is important to gain an understanding about why the language matters. The language in any bill can make or break it. In order to determine what language might give you a leg up, it’s important to consider where your state falls on the political spectrum. Being aware of your audience’s political stance will frame how you approach the discussion with people who you are trying to convince to support your legislation. In our case, Oklahoma is well-known as a very conservative state. Based on this information, I learned that many law makers and constituents do not the word “mandate”. Therefore, we had to be extremely careful in the wording we used to require all coaches and officials to undergo concussion training before their season. Of course you can’t keep everyone happy with how you write a law, but the important thing is to do your very best to stay true to your mission. Sometimes getting the law passed means negotiating the language.

GETTING THE VOTE

After you have built your team and written the bill, it is critical that you understand the process that your bill will go through once it is submitted. This is a multi-step route that involves a number of committees. As the process begins, there are some important questions that you need to have in your mind, including: what committee will hear it first? What will happen after its read? What if they vote it down? What if they vote yes?

Once you submit your bill, it is important to meet with the committee members and educate them about your bill and why it’s important that they support it prior to the committee hearing.

Oklahoma State Representative Dan Kirby speaks in front of committee.

Oklahoma State Representative Dan Kirby speaks in front of committee.

Sometimes you will get to talk to the legislator and sometimes you will speak with the aide in their office. Either way, the important thing is that you talk to someone in the office of the committee members. For each meeting, make sure to have printed materials with you that include facts about the bill, its purpose, and who it will affect.  Remember, you are asking for support and want that legislator say vote yes when your bill is read. This is a time when being prepared for what opponents of the bill may say can come in handy.

 

In the days leading up to the committee meeting, call or email the l committee members to follow up from you visit.  Reiterate how important their vote to getting the bill passed.

I was lucky to spend an afternoon with the OATA President walking the halls of the House of Representatives to talk to legislators and their aides. This was a very eye opening experience. Given the time, effort, and energy we put into educating parents, athletes, coaches, officials, and school administrators over the past few years, I was amazed at how many legislators didn’t know that Oklahoma had a concussion law that had been in effect since 2010.  . However, this experience shed light on the fact that we also need to focus on educating our elected officials and raising their awareness about concussion legislation.

Oklahoma Senator AJ Griffin speaks to NBC Affiliate, KFOR-TV, about SB 1164.

Oklahoma Senator AJ Griffin speaks to NBC Affiliate, KFOR-TV, about SB 1164.

MEDIA COVERAGE

As we pressed forward with getting our bill passed, media coverage was a regular topic of discussion. There was often a debate about whether or not the media should be involved in the process. I wanted the media to be involved in this because it is important that the general population be aware of what will affect hundreds of thousands of athletes across the state of Oklahoma. However, others in our group felt that the presence of media coverage provided the opportunity for the opposition to gain steam and get the bill voted down.

There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument about whether or not to involve the media and to what extent. Regardless of the decision, it is important to have an open discussion about media involvement from the beginning.  In our case, it turned out to be a positive asset as it allowed us the opportunity to hear from constituents in the community about their concerns and support of the bill.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, AND MORE RESEARCH

If you wish to update your state’s current concussion law. You must, and I can’t stress this enough, you must do your research.

Months before I approached a trusted colleague to begin this process, I researched every concussion law that was in effect at the time (every state had concussion legislation except Mississippi).  The reason I researched each law was two-fold: 1) to compare the OK concussion legislation to the rest of the country and 2) to see what language other state’s used in their bills

I encourage you to spend a lot of time  researching your neighboring states because it will provide you with vital information when it comes to discussing why  the law needs updated and what changes should be made.  I learned that Oklahoma does not like to be known as a state that is  behind the times,  specifically, they  do not want to be lacking in areas in which  Texas, Kansas, or Arkansas are excelling. Being informed in this way will provide you with knowledge that will not only help you determine what needs to be accomplished, but assist you in determining the best way to approach the process in order to be successful in getting the legislation passed.

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SB 1164 is heard in the Health and Human Services Committee.

I spent a lot of time comparing each state’s protocols in order to understand where the law needed to be improved to protect youth and student-athletes.  This was incredibly helpful and eye opening because it allowed me the opportunity to play with the language of the law and gain a better understanding of existing concussion legislation.  One of my priorities was to ensure that Oklahoma’s concussion law reflected the current research on concussions and the consensus of certain concussion issues. I wanted our law to be looked at as the standard of the most up-to-date concussion law in the country.

In order to accomplish this goal, there were key components that needed to be included. First, is was necessary to define “athlete” and “healthcare provider,” which are:

  • “Athlete” means a secondary-school-age individual who is participating in a sport which is individual- and/or team-based, outside of school or within school and either competitive or in an organized practice; and
  • “Healthcare provider” means an individual who is registered, certified, licensed or otherwise recognized by the state to provide medical or psychological treatment and who is trained and experienced in the evaluation, management and care of concussions.

Further, the State Department of Health needed to provide guidelines for school districts and youth sports organizations. These guidelines are:

  • The State Department of Health shall create a concussion management section on its website to provide the guidelines necessary for each school district board of education and youth sports organization to develop their own policies and procedures pertaining to, but not limited to:
    • A concussion and head injury information sheet for game officials, team officials, athletes, parents or guardians and other persons having care or charge of athletes of the signs and symptoms of concussion or head injury and the risk of continuing to practice or compete in an athletic event or activity after sustaining a concussion or head injury;
  • “Return to Learn” guidelines for teachers and relevant school personnel pertaining to athletes who are returning to the classroom after sustaining a concussion or head injury;
  • Graduated Stepwise Return to Athletic Participation” guidelines for team officials pertaining to athletes returning to practice or competition after a concussion or head injury; and
  • Links to one or more free online concussion training programs as provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) or a comparable program or resource.

WHAT IF THE LAW DOESN’T PASS?

From first-hand experience I can say that it is a very difficult pill to swallow if your law doesn’t pass and it may sting for a while.  If you find yourself on the losing end of a vote, regardless of where the bill ended in the legislature, know that most bills don’t pass on the first try and your feelings of defeat and frustration are shared by those who have gone through it, too.  Acknowledge the challenge and begin to plan your second attempt at getting the law passed.

It can be easy to give up and walk away after a failed attempt, but if it is something you truly believe in then do not give up!  Go back to the drawing board, review the process you went through the first time, continue to do research, and maintain and continue to build connections with legislators. It’s a long process and it can be grueling, but in the end, if you stick with it and believe in your cause, then victory will be very sweet.

YOUR BILL PASSED AND NOW WHAT?

The process of getting the bill passed is very difficult at times, but once you get all of the votes you need, it is very exciting to see the Governor sign his or her name on a bill that you worked so hard to make happen. In our case, it was 2 years in the making and I was elated!

Co-Founder, Lauren Long shares her story at the Youth Sports Safety Alliance Annual Summit in March 2014.

Co-Founder, Lauren Long shares her story at the Youth Sports Safety Alliance Annual Summit in March 2014.

Once the Governor’s signature is on the bill, the next step in the process begins. Now it’s time to make sure that everyone is thoroughly educated on how they will be impacted by the new law. In order to carry this out, Concussion Connection partnered with OATA for the entire month before the law went into effect. Each week we educated the public on a different aspect of the law to increase awareness about what the new concussion law means.

WHAT’S NEXT?

With the concussion law in effect for nearly three months, we haven’t seen push back from youth sports leagues or high schools. We are hopeful that this means that passing the law was well-received and a positive step for athlete safety in Oklahoma.  One of the things the law does not do is include an aspect of accountability for sports organizations; therefore, it will require research to truly see its effectiveness in the coming years.  Overall, I am very proud of the work we have done in Oklahoma with updating our concussion law. This is a tremendous step forward in protecting our youth and high school athletes.

MY HOPE FOR YOU

I always envisioned that I would make a mark on this world by playing soccer. I never, in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be able to be a part of something bigger than myself by helping re-write a law that impacts hundreds of thousands of athletes in my state.  To be a part of this legislative process has given me a greater respect for the work it takes to effect change.  It’s truly been an honor to work alongside so many wonderful individuals and see a dream of mine come true.  There were some great days and there were some frustrating days during this process. At times I wondered if it was even worth pursuing changing the legislation.

If you are considering taking on this journey in your own community,  the biggest piece of advice I can give is  do not give up! At times, standing up for what is right can be difficult and very challenging.   It can be easy to give up. Sometimes you may feel like you are standing alone, but know that you are not alone in this fight. What we are doing is starting to shift a longstanding mindset that is engrained in our culture. It is going to be an uphill battle, but when we get discouraged we have to remind ourselves that what we  are doing is for a greater good of our athletes and future generations. Take it one day at a time.

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