Concussion bill should be a no-brainer

I won’t mention the girl’s name, but I’m sure most sports fans in our area know who I am referring to.

She was the leading scorer on her basketball team, and a major reason that team had aspirations of wining the State championship. The team might have even been the favorite to win it all.

While the team played at State, though, this star player sat on the bench because she suffered a head injury the Saturday before the tournament.

A doctor said she couldn’t play, so she didn’t.

That this player sat out the tournament was the topic of a lot of whispers by people who found it hard to believe she didn’t play with the stakes so very high. Have we really softened that much that a player could be held out of the State tournament because of an injury that doesn’t even make her limp?

Realistically, the girl could have probably played and scored 15 points and pulled down 10 rebounds per game during the tournament, helping her team win a State title we would have remembered for ever.

She also could have been hit on the head again, and such a blow to an already injured brain could have been lethal.

Believe me, nobody in town wanted a State title for her team more than the girl sitting in street clothes on the bench. Nobody worked harder to obtain that than her. Still, she was the only one saddled with stigma of sitting out and letting her teammates, coaches and fans down.

For those who think that the girl should have played in the tournament, I’ll give you one name that we should mention over and over: Cullan Barry.


Cullan Barry doing what he loved, playing hockey. (Courtesy photo)

A couple of years ago, Cullan took his life not long after his 17th birthday. He was a Butte boy who was born on St. Paddy’s Day. He had an infectious smile, a promising hockey career and anything he wanted in life in front of him.

He also suffered from horrible migraine headaches. Usually two or three times a week he would suffer a migraine as a result of a series of concussions he suffered while playing hockey.

It was during one of these headaches when Cullan said goodbye for the final time.

Concussions aren’t just a problem for long-time players in the National Football League. They’re killing our children, too, and it’s time we stand up to protect them.

Unless you’re a legislature junkie, you probably never heard of Montana Senate Bill 112. That’s because it has basically went uncovered by the media around the state. I never heard about it until I got an email last week from Cullan’s mother. (Read Senate Bill 112 here)

The bill is called Dylan Steiger’s Protection of Youth Athletes Act, and it would be a major step toward protecting our kids.

Named after the Missoula teen who died after suffering a head injury during a spring practice with the Eastern Oregon University football team, the bill would require all school-sanctioned sports to provide concussion education to all participating athletes, coaches, trainers and parents.

It would mean no same-game return for players who suffer a possible concussion, and players would have to be released by qualified medical personnel and pass a concussion evaluation before returning to action.

Montana is one of just seven states that doesn’t have such legislation on the books.

Under the direction of Dr. Nick DiGiovine, medical director of Montana Sports Medicine in Butte, schools in Butte and Anaconda might be a cut above the rest as far as concussions go.

Athletes at Butte High, Butte Central, Anaconda High and Montana Tech are required to undergo preseason neurological testing similar to the NFL. That gives doctors and trainers a baseline when dealing with concussions during the season.

After being diagnosed with a concussion, players cannot return to the field or court until they are cleared by a doctor.

This is a policy that Dr. DiGiovine and company are serious about. One of Butte High’s best players sat out the State championship football game in November with a concussion he surely would have played through if it were left up to him.

This is a policy that will almost certainly save lives. It might have already done so.

Unfortunately, Dr. DiGiovine can’t be everywhere, and he doesn’t have jurisdiction over non-school sports like hockey and Little League Baseball.

It is also clear that some schools around the state are still stuck in the stone ages when it comes to concussions.

A couple of years ago, for example, a football team came to town to play Montana Tech, which wasn’t expecting to see this team’s starting quarterback because he left the game the week before with an injury.

Though the word “concussion” wasn’t used by the school, the newspaper account of the game made it clear that the injury was to the player’s head, and it was obvious.

In Butte that day, the quarterback wasn’t himself. The player who ripped the Orediggers apart earlier in the season could complete a pass. Then, the vulnerable player got absolutely lit up by a Tech defender.

When he finally got up from the hit, the wobbly quarterback was helped to the bench, where he sat motionless — and unattended to — for the rest of the game. It was clearly a severe concussion. You didn’t have to be a doctor or sleep in a money-saving hotel the night before to see that.

Unfortunately, most concussions aren’t as obvious, and that’s where Senate Bill 112 comes into play.

A player with a torn ACL clearly has an injury. Same goes for the player with a broken arm or torn ligaments in his ankle.

If a player suffers an injury to the brain, though, people wonder why he isn’t playing.

“A concussion is not just a bell being wrung or just a concussion but a brain injury,” says Christine Barry. “If she had a broken leg, no one would have expected her to play, but because she instead had a potentially life-threatening brain injury she should have played? There’s something very wrong about that in our culture.

“Our children’s brains should be valued more. Just because you cannot see a concussion on the outside, in an X-ray or even on a CT scan does not mean that fragile brain is not injured.”

Christine Barry is Cullan’s mom. She has turned into a bit of a crusader when it comes to protecting young athletes from concussions. The Barry family is supporting Senate Bill 112 because they don’t want another family to have to endure the same hell they suffered through. That they are still suffering through.

She said her son is proof that standard concussion tests for athletes are not close to adequate.

“Trainers and coaches need to realize and what we experienced with Cullan is that highly-trained athletes have to be seriously knocked out before an agility coordination test is too hard for them,” Christine says. “Cullan got hit hard from behind into the boards in a hockey game and had to be taken off the ice by stretcher because he could not get himself up. He rode to the emergency room in an ambulance  and could not remember what period of the game it was or what the score was. He was disoriented.

“However, at the ER they had him stand on one leg then the other, touch nose with fingers, fingers to thumb, etc. He passed with flying colors so they said he did not have a concussion. But if you think about it, this is a kid who had played his sport at the national level. He could stand on one leg on one skate blade and shoot a puck over a goalie’s shoulder while being checked, so standing on one leg in the ER while a little dizzy was a piece of cake. It’s not a good indicator of a concussion.

“Also, not all people who have concussions have balance problems. It depends on where they were hit. So we need a better way to test athletes on sidelines before they send them back in — when in doubt sit them out. Period.”

Education is so simple, and it could mean so much.

Senate Bill 112 passed the Senate, and it was heard in the House Education Committee on Friday. Its passage and signing by governor Steve Bullock should be, pardon the language, a no-brainer.

“The bill is aimed at educating everyone about multiple symptoms and whole team looking out for each other,” Christine Barry says. “A player may not realize they are acting funny but their teammate might see that and notify a coach. A coach in the heat of game may not see a player acting funny but a teammate might.

“Athletes have a high desire to play to push through to not let team down, and this bill is aimed at educating them about dangers of playing with symptoms.”

Senate Bill 112 wouldn’t include hockey, Little League Baseball, AAU Wrestling, club soccer and other non-school sports. But it’s a start.

You’d have to hope that the concussion education would spill over to other sports. If a player is trained about concussions in the fall for football, he’ll realize the signs of a concussed player on the ice in the winter.

Parents, fans, athletes, coaches, officials, everybody should learn more about this silent killer. We must know the sign of concussions, we must know how to treat them and, more importantly, we must put the safety of our players ahead of the final score.

Obviously, everybody wants to put an end to tragedies like the ones that stole the lives of young men like Dylan Steiger and Cullan Barry.

For that to happen, we first must make sure our players never feel shame for sitting out a game. Even if it’s the championship game.

— Sportswriter Bill Foley writes a column that appears on on Tuesdays. Email him at Follow him at