There reaches a point in every health or safety reform movement when we find ourselves wondering how society ever could have been so casual, negligent or stuck in the dark.
It happened with smoking and seat belts in cars. Someday, if it hasn’t already arrived, this is where we will find ourselves on the subject of sports concussions.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama convened a White House summit of some of the country’s top sports executives and researchers to shine a brighter light on an issue that has rapidly gained awareness.
It was only a relatively short time ago, after all, that the media initially broached the topic of sports concussions – first as an NFL issue, then as it impacted athletes down to the rec fields. From the Pop Warner league to the NFL, there’s a lot of talk about concussions now. Yet well before the dialogue entered the mainstream, doctors at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters were on the case.
“There was a need to take hold of the concussion problem,” said Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of the CHKD sports medicine program and director of the hospital’s sports concussion program for the past eight years. “There was really no one in the community who was doing that, especially for young athletes. Who better to do it than us?”
At the gathering of about 200 people in the White House, Brenner represented the American Academy of Pediatrics. One of the country’s leading experts on the subject, he’s seen how attitudes about youth concussions have changed among parents and coaches, though he said, “that doesn’t always translate into complete acceptance of how to treat them.”
There’s still room for improvement in that area because too many people – i.e., dads and coaches – “still kind of hold to the old thought, ‘I had a concussion once and I turned out OK.’ ”
Another impediment to understanding the potential consequences of brain injuries is the misguided perception by some parents that their children have suffered only a “mild” concussion.
“There’s no such thing as a mild concussion,” Brenner said. “Because it’s a brain injury, it needs to be treated seriously. When people use the word mild, it really downplays the seriousness of the problem.”
In 2009, lawmakers on Capitol Hill excoriated NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for downplaying the fallout from concussions suffered by current and former pro players. Though it looks for ways to distance itself from former players with advanced dementia, the league has since bowed to medical and public pressure to appear more responsible, starting with rules against helmet-to-helmet hits.
In March, Goodell announced that the NFL would donate $45 million to USA Football, with some of the money going toward educating coaches in how to teach safer tackling techniques.
Pop Warner has already implemented rules changes about the amount of contact in practice, but Brenner said it’s too early to know their effect. “We need to wait until we get more information,” he said, “to see if it’s truly safer.”
As for college football, the NCAA is expected to release a report soon on concussion management and how it is dealing with potential conflicts-of-interest issues involving team medical personnel.
Outside the football establishment, we’re seeing more concrete examples of consciousness-raising. All 50 states have laws requiring athletes playing for their school teams who suffer concussions to be removed from the game and not allowed to return without written clearance. And this week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe will sign a bill extending the mandate to non-interscholastic sports using public school athletic fields and gyms.
At the summit, Obama refrained from alarmist rhetoric, acknowledging that taking risks in sports is “fundamental to who we are as Americans and our culture.”
Though it’s a non-partisan issue, a conference at the White House on sports concussions would have been criticized – perhaps even mocked – a few years ago by people who held to old thinking. But with perceptions radically altered, heightening awareness of sports concussions can no longer be dismissed as pandering to soccer moms.
That’s progress. It’s pretty clear, too, that momentum will carry the discussion even further into the mainstream.
Youth soccer, incidentally, is right behind football in the incidence of concussions. Not from heading the ball, but from players hitting the ground or another player’s head or the goal post.
“We see a lot of concussions from soccer,” Brenner said.
The question had to be asked to the doctor: Would you recommend that parents allow their children to play football? Or soccer?
“It’s a family decision,” he said. “If it’s someone who has never played football or soccer, that’s different than if somebody’s had two or three or four concussions and you ask me if they should play football or soccer.”
CHKD doesn’t wait for concussion cases to show up at the door. It conducts seminars for rec leagues and schools and creates videos for parents, teachers and coaches. Recently, Brenner even spoke to a local rugby club about concussions.
“With this information, we’re not trying to scare people,” he said. “We want them to be active, but play smarter. Trading in a football helmet or a soccer ball for a remote control is no good, either.”