White House Concussions Summit Urges Action
By Doug Abrams
“We want our kids participating in sports,” says President Obama. “As parents, though, we want to keep them safe, and that means we have to have better information.” The President spoke as he opened the first White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussions Summit last Thursday, May 29. He pinpointed the need for “better research, better data, better safety equipment, [and] better protocols” for preventing and treating concussions in youth competition.
The one-day Summit assembled more than 200 attendees, including representatives from professional sports leagues, medical professionals, coaches, parents, and youth athletes. The first tangible results are major funding commitments for ongoing research and public education. Pledges have already come from the National Football League, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, the NCAA, New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch (collaborating with UCLA), and others.
Funding alone cannot enhance concussions safety, but funding can support research that leads parents, coaches and decision makers toward new safety measures that will improve children’s lives as they play the sports that help define their lives. Dollars matter. Beginning in 1938, for example, the March of Dimes raised several million dollars to help fund essentially private research that finally conquered polio in America in the 1950s.
Lessons from History
Neither the President nor Congress can directly regulate youth sports leagues. President Obama, however, is not the first Chief Executive to use the “bully pulpit” to educate decision makers and the general public about avoidable head injuries in amateur sports, and to steer public sentiment toward greater safety.
The first was Theodore Roosevelt, whose White House summit in 1905 helped save football from potential extinction. The story of his successful redirection of football more than 100 years ago demonstrates how much White House initiatives can accomplish in youth sports, even without direct regulatory authority from Washington.
Lessons From Theodore Roosevelt
By late 1905, college football was at a crossroads because raw violence and unremitting bloodshed had stalked the gridiron for years. In that season alone, eighteen players had been killed and scores more had been seriously injured from college football games. Americans cringed at news accounts of bloodshed on the field, and calls to abolish the sport as barbaric grew louder because games and death did not seem to mix on college campuses.
Death in college football was serious business at the dawn of the 20th century. A national professional league was still a few years away, so the collegiate game was the highest and most publicized level of competitive football in America. Even one on-the-field death among several thousand college football players today would attract national attention; because far fewer students played college football in 1905, 18 deaths in a single season was an astounding percentage of all players. Because the rules permitted such mayhem as the Flying Wedge by players wearing flimsy protective equipment without helmets or face guards, the annual death toll showed no signs of abating.
Most of the football deaths were from what physicians today diagnose as multiple concussions, skull fractures, and other traumatic brain injury. President Roosevelt loved football and grew concerned that without rules changes to insure greater player safety, public revulsion would lead colleges to ban the game altogether, as a few (including Columbia University and Northwestern University) had already done. Roosevelt worried that Harvard, his alma mater, might be next.
In October of 1905, the President summoned representatives from the “Big Three” intercollegiate football powers — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — to convene at the White House and explore ways to maintain the game’s distinctiveness as a collision sport, but also to stem its largely unregulated brutality. The White House football summit led to the forward pass and several other rules changes that continue today, including some that previewed future changes in later years.
Without diminishing football’s national popularity, these innovations made the mounting death toll a thing of the past. Players no longer die on football fields, yet the game remains the nation’s most popular spectator sport in annual Louis Harris polls. The highest award the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can bestow on an individual is the Theodore Roosevelt Award, a perpetual honor to the man whose presidential initiative saved the game from itself.
Sports Safety in the 21st Century
Today the nation faces sports safety issues similar to the one that motivated President Roosevelt more than a century ago. The potential adverse long term consequences of concussive impact are no longer a matter of serious debate. Football remains the national leader in youth concussions but, as neurosurgeon William P. Meehan reports, we now know that “concussion is a risk in almost any sport.” Much research indicates that youth leaguers can suffer greater adverse effects than adults because children’s brains are still developing.
By reviewing rules changes in pursuit of greater player safety, the National Football League and other professional leagues summon Americans to consider how much health risk we are willing to tolerate for weekly public entertainment in collision and contact sports on television and in stadiums throughout the nation. Parents and coaches, however, should set a much lower toleration level for concussions and traumatic brain injury in youth sports.
Youth leaguers and pros are different. Pros are multi-millionaire adult entertainers who, if they receive full and fair information, presumably can make their own risk-taking decisions in the billion-dollar businesses that employ them. Youth leaguers are not simply miniature adults, but children playing games as part of their upbringing. Only a minuscule few youth leaguers will ever reach the professional ranks, but all anticipate livelihoods free from avoidable physical pain or worse.
“We Can Do a Lot Better”
Organized youth sports is much larger and much more diverse today than college football was when President Roosevelt exercised his leadership in 1905. The President and other national leaders can jump-start safety efforts, as President Obama has done, but injury prevention and treatment depend largely on parents, medical professionals, journalists, and other voices who spur national youth sports governing bodies (USA Hockey, USA Football, and others) and the state high school activities associations that govern interscholastic sports.
As protective equipment continues to improve, these governing bodies must continue to weigh reasonable rules changes that maintain the essence of the particular sport, but also encourage parents to enroll their children by enhancing safety. Contact and collision sports depend on a measure of controlled violence within the rules, but the quest for enhanced safety must continue to drive adults who conduct kids’ games.
The President told the Summit that “sports are vital to this country,” but that the nation needs to assure that children “are able to participate as safely as possible.” “[T]he concussion problem in football and other contact sports is far more serious than any of us want to believe, and it is time to do something about it,” says former football player, professional wrestler, and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. With the knowledge that concussions researchers have already provided, says neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, “we owe it to our . . . kids . . . to make them as safe as we know how to do, and we can do a lot better than we have been doing.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s successful initiative more than a century ago teaches that when a President convenes a White House summit, people listen. Last week’s summit demonstrates that much has been done to make sports as safe as possible for kids, but that much work remains to be done.