to host a White House summit on growing concerns over
sports head injuries.
about football in the Blue Room of the White House this week with
President Obama, Maria Hanes brought up the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super
Bowl champion quarterback Jim McMahon — only to have Obama finish her
he noted, is “suffering
brain-injury reference was not surprising. Hanes’s little brother
suffered his fourth concussion while playing the sport and, under
doctor’s orders, can no longer participate. In response, she developed a
Cushion” — a gel-filled helmet cover that softens the impact when
two helmets collide.
love of football drove me toward doing this,” said Hanes, 19, of
Lancaster, Calif., a former high school team manager who has dreamed of
becoming the nation’s first female college football coach. “I want
football to have a future, but if things like this don’t get fixed, it
won’t have a future.”
threat of brain damage from America’s most popular sport has become a
widespread cultural concern, with profound implications for professional
sports, the health of athletes and worried parents across the country.
Obama is taking the unusual step of joining the discussion, both as
president and as an avid sports fan and sympathetic parent of two teenage
daughters. It is a role he has embraced in the past to discuss the
cost of college, the challenges
facing young black men, and the broader plight of the American middle
cuts across many of those cultural lines, affecting African Americans, who
make up a significant portion of its professional ranks; suburban and
rural white teenagers who play on the local level; and adults of all
backgrounds who passionately follow the sport.
Thursday, Obama will bring together 200 sports officials, medical experts,
parent activists and young athletes for the first
White House summit on sports concussions. The gathering is aimed at
finding new ways to identify, treat and prevent serious head injuries,
particularly in youth sports.
House press secretary Jay Carney — who, like the president, has children who
play sports — said the event grew out of conversations he had with Obama
on the subject.
president approaches the concussions issue as a parent,” White House
communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an interview, adding,
“A lot of change he can do is not just outside of Washington, but also
outside the parameters of the government.”
Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit comes nearly a century
after President Theodore Roosevelt summoned several Ivy League coaches and
officials to the White House to warn them that they had to make football
less deadly. The issue of head injuries has sparked lawsuits and union
organizing efforts while prompting some parents to pull their children out
from the National Football League, the NCAA, Major League Soccer, the NFL
Players Association, the U.S. Soccer Federation and medical institutions
such as Children’s National Medical Center will attend Thursday’s
summit will feature an on-site training session for young soccer and
football players on how to avoid head injuries — complete with drills on
the South Lawn — as well as panel discussions on the latest scientific
is obviously very important, for a lot of different levels of play,”
said Julian Bailes, chairman of the medical advisory board for Pop Warner,
the nation’s oldest youth football league. After Pop Warner banned
intentional head-to-head contact three years ago, Bailes said, head
contact was reduced by about 40 percent.
involving head injuries among professional players have garnered big
headlines in recent years. And in January, a federal judge declined
to grant preliminary approval of a $765 million settlement between
the NFL and former players who had sued over the impact of past
concussions, on the grounds it might be insufficient.
the issue also has become important for parents of young athletes in
sports ranging from ice hockey to lacrosse, in part because new research
suggests that younger brains are more susceptible than adult ones to
involves structural differences between the growing brain and the adult
brain’s connectivity, or circuitry,” said Boston University School of
Medicine professor Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to both the NFL and the
NFL Players Association.
and others cite recent studies that show “repetitive head banging can
cause loss of brain substance” when comparing preseason cognition
studies of athletes to postseason tests. But there is debate on whether
the loss is permanent.
Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic
Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said
that “there is not one published study that supports the idea that
sub-concussive blows cause long-term damage.”
who serves as an adviser on the NFL head, neck and spine committee and the
NCAA’s concussion committee, said media coverage has fueled “a
paranoia where people think there’s a concussions epidemic.”
Gfeller, who lost his 15-year-old son Matthew to a football head injury in
2008 and now serves as executive director of the Childress
Institute for Pediatric Trauma at
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said 70 percent of the U.S.
football-playing population is younger than 14, but the group is vastly
understudied. He said the institute is conducting a long-running study of
9- to 12-year-olds, now in its third year, to track “the cumulative
impact on the brain of head contact just across the season.”
Thursday, the NCAA and Pentagon will launch a $30 million clinical
study of concussion and head impact exposure among college students. The
NFL will pledge $25 million over the next three years to support
youth sports safety.
has weighed in on the topic in very personal terms. He said in a
2013 interview with the New Republic that
if he had a son, he would “have to think long and hard before I let him
play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going
to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to
try to reduce some of the violence.”
year later, he compared the sport to boxing, telling
the the New Yorker, “I would not let my son play pro football.”
former personal aide Reggie
Love is a onetime
forward for the Duke Blue Devils basketball team who often talked sports
with the president. Love said in an interview that concussions “would
end up being [the] topic of conversation” between them because they
affect so many players.
him to have that dialogue puts a lot more information in front of parents
and players and coaches on how they’re defining safety,” Love said.
“Because he doesn’t have a financial benefit from it, it makes it
easier for him to be a voice in that world.”
interest in the topic and her gel-helmet proposal earned her two visits to
the White House this week — the first on Tuesday for an
administration-sponsored science fair. Hanes sported pigskin-inspired
high-heeled sandals and a rhinestone-encrusted whistle necklace for the
and her mother, Mary, said the connection between concussions and contact
sports is troubling. Hanes’s brother had trouble seeing for six months
after his fourth injury.
frightening,” Mary Hanes said. When it comes to football, she added:
“He’s done. Done.”