- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Fearing concussions, Kentucky lawmakers are debating whether to give high school sports referees more power in deciding whether student athletes can continue to play following head injuries.

A 2012 state law requires students suspected of head injuries to stop playing and get a medical evaluation. The student can return to the game only if a licensed medical provider says it is OK.

Those medical providers are provided by the school and coaches are responsible for making sure the evaluation happens before putting the student back in the game. But a bill advanced by the Kentucky House Education Committee on Tuesday would let referees overrule the coach if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the medical evaluation has not happened.

“It’s just another tier to protecting the student athlete. The official will be that next step in terms of protecting the student,” Democratic state Rep. Derek Graham of Frankfort said.

But some lawmakers worried adding another tier would also add someone else people can sue. And they feared coaches would try to use the law to their advantage, intimidating referees into throwing out the best players on an opposing team.

“I think it puts a lot of added pressure on that official,” said Republican state Rep. David Hale of Wellington, who voted against the bill. “Coaches will try to intimidate officials.”

Most states have some law dealing with concussions in youth sports leagues, according to a 2014 review by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws include requiring coaches and officials receive training on concussion symptoms and requiring a physician sign off before a student can return to a game.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association says Kentucky has about 50,000 high school student athletes and about 4,000 referees. Chad Collins, the association’s general counsel, told lawmaker he worries the bill would put referees in a position of “getting closer to practicing medicine or diagnosing.”

Collins noted referees can already remove athletes from games to receive a medical evaluation. And if the student returns to the game still showing symptoms of a concussion, the referee can send them to the sidelines for a second evaluation.

“If I’ve got to do it 10 times, then I’m going to do it 10 times because safety is of the utmost concern of what we’re doing here,” Collins said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Mike Denham of Maysville, said he would work with Collins and the high school athletic association to make sure they are comfortable with the bill. But most lawmakers supported the bill as written, with just two Republicans and one Democrat voting against it.

“We’re talking about high school games. It’s not the Super Bowl,” Democratic state Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville said. “This is about our student athletes and safety and the health of our kids.”

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