It’s not quite as dramatic as 1905, when President Teddy Roosevelt summoned the football coaches of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House, and urged them to clean up a game that was causing dozens of deaths — a meeting that indirectly led to the legalization of the forward pass, and a much safer, though still dangerous, sport. “That’s the most towering example of sports changing because of presidential leadership,” says presidential historian and NBC News contributor Michael Beschloss. Still, by convening a White House summit on youth sports concussions on Thursday, President Obama is using his pulpit for a purpose: to make parents more aware of the frightening risks of contact sports like football, soccer, hockey and lacrosse, and the measures that can help prevent, and better manage, concussions. “When the president says the word ‘concussions,’ or convenes a meeting like this, it escalates the seriousness of the issue to a whole new level,” says Beschloss.
At the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit, a number of new initiatives will be announced, including a $30 million investment from the NCAA and Department of Defense to fund the most comprehensive clinical study of concussion and head impacts, a $25 million commitment from the NFL over the next three years that includes support for increased access to athletic trainers in schools, the participation of 100 Pop Warner football teams in a concussion tracking research project, and new head injury protocols from USA Cheer to be taught to cheerleaders and coaches this summer.
Last fall, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council issued a report that concluded there is a “startling” lack of data on youth sports concussions, and a persistent “culture of resistance” among athletes to report them and stay off the field. “As a parent himself, [President Obama] feels that there’s just not that much information out there about concussions, what are the right protocols, what do we know about when kids should come out of the game,” says White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “And in looking into this, we found that the scientists agree that there’s not enough that we know about concussions and how they relate to young athletes.”
The medical community is applauding the president’s move. “I hope that there will be a realization that this is a public health issue that needs to be brought to light,” says Jim Thornton, director of sports medicine and athletic training services at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. One proposal that should be debated by the 200 medical experts, parents, coaches, professional athletes, young athletes and military service members invited to summit: a ban, advocated for kids under 14 by leading concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu in his 2012 book Concussions and Our Kids, on tackling in football, on heading in soccer, and on full-body checking in hockey. “I’m coming at it that the brain is more vulnerable in kids than in adults,” says Cantu, who was invited to the White House for the summit.
His proposal makes intuitive sense — the most surefire way to reduce youth head injuries, after all, is to disallow head contact — but it isn’t embraced by all scientists. The fear: in football, for example, if players don’t learn proper blocking and tackling technique before 14, the lack of preparation can hurt them in high school. “If a 15-year-old who’s never put pads on before is suddenly going up against someone 40 pounds heavier than him, there’s a risk of something catastrophic happening, something much worse than a concussion,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, and winner of a 2011 MacArthur genius grant for his cutting-edge concussion research. Guskiewicz does advocate for contact limits in practice, and says he’d entertain a tackling ban for kids 8 and under. “An 11-year-0ld is very different from an 8-year-old,” says Guskiewicz. “But the way our nervous system is built, kids can develop very important muscle memory skills at 11,12, and 13.”
Still, minus major rule changes, there’s little that any youth concussion summit — or research funding or study or education program — can do to fix the fundamental problem: sports are dangerous. And if kids are going to play them, they’re at risk of bruising their knees, and shoulders and brains. The event will likely end up being well-intentioned window dressing.
“We can’t prevent all injuries,” says Clarion U’s Thornton. “But we can prevent them the best we can. And the ones that do take place, we can make sure they’re managed property.” He says 45% of high schools don’t have access to a full-time certified athletic trainer, and about a third of all high schools don’t have access to any athletic training services at all. “Would you ever, ever leave your kids off at a public pool knowing there was no lifeguard on duty?” asks Thornton. Of course not. “Then why would we drop off our kids at the football, soccer, or lacrosse fields without the knowledge that someone could take care of them if they got injured?”
Obama is taking on tough issue, but it’s not the first time he’s joined hot sports debates. He has stumped for a college football playoff — and hey, he got one! In a January 2013 interview with the New Republic, Obama caused a stir when he said, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” Other presidents have concerned themselves with sports. President George W. Bush, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, mentioned the burgeoning steroid scandals in his 2004 State of the Union address. “Athletics play such an important role in our society, but unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example,” Bush said. “The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message: that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character.” In 2005, Congress held a hearing that embarrassed baseball into enacting stricter drug testing.
Beschloss, the presidential historian, isn’t surprised that Obama has called the concussion summit. “It’s almost less that the president is getting involved in sports,” says Beschloss, “and more that he’s getting involved in health.”
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