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The White House Concussion Summit-No Quick Fixes Please

I had the honor and privilege to be a participant in yesterday’s White House Sports Concussion Summit.

President Obama’s inaugural concussion summit presented a watershed moment in validating and tackling the public health crisis of the long term hazards posed by concussions in sports and its ramifications. The President’s opening remarks were very encouraging and he deserves credit for bringing everyone together around this issue. Unfortunately, the momentum was lost when the panelists shifted the focus to protection of sporting activities from the negative publicity associated with brain injury rather than protection of players.

The White House Summit on sports was an opportunity to embrace a uniform national protocol comprehensively tackling the multi-dimensional issues related to sports concussion management.  It is critical to avoid preventable brain injuries and manage the brain injuries that unfortunately but inevitably occur.  Though many coaches and parents fear the over-protective label, they have justification for their safety concerns.

Contrary to the perspective of the panel, brain injury is not a simple event with a simple solution.  One only need listen to the many young adults who suffer permanent disability in the pursuit of athletic participation. No one is suggesting a ban on athletic activities. Yes, concussions happen. It is part of the game, but we must implement initiatives to reduce the risk of injury, and prevent, preventable injuries. 

This national summit on the public health crisis of sports related brain injury missed an important opportunity to set forth a meaningful agenda and address the needs of the millions of individuals who have sustained a brain injury both on and off the playing field. 

Increased government funding is crucial for continued meaningful and targeted research on prevention, diagnosis and treatment and much more will be necessary in our efforts to comprehend the complexities of traumatic brain injury.

Traumatic brain injury affects 5.2 million Americans.  Government initiatives must extend beyond the athletic fields and focus on all aspects of this silent but burgeoning epidemic. A brain injury is not a passing illness.  The lifelong cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of this condition affect every aspect of the victim’s life.  A brain injury can affect anyone, anytime, anywhere, and unfortunately, it does.  A national proposal attempting to prevent, reduce, and treat brain injury must be comprehensive in scope. 

There are those who might have another agenda, not entirely focused on public health.  Multi-billion dollar enterprises, such as the NFL, have been jeopardized, and its image tarnished by mushrooming liabilities and the trickledown effect on college and youth sports.  The league might have other motivation in joining this project.  The NFL employs marketing masterminds to control the public’s perception of concussion risks. The league’s “Heads Up Football” tackle program attempts to convince parents that football can be made safe.  Football is a concussion delivery system.  While it is beneficial to improve and require “safe” tackling  procedures, there is no empirical evidence supporting the position that changing the tackle rules will either reduce the rate or  decrease the severity of concussions. 

Pixie dust solutions only work in fairy tales.  The dangers of concussions remain constant.  A concussion is a brain injury: a significant event with potentially life-altering consequences.   

Doubtless NFL monetary contributions to fund brain injury research are beneficial.  These funds must not be allowed to subtly influence the outcome of that research.  When the fox supervises the chicken coop, the outcome becomes predictable.  The NFL’s proposed settlement of the pending mass injury lawsuit is a perfect example of the league’s duplicity.  No settlement funds have been committed to players who continue to suffer the long-term consequences of the post-concussive syndrome.  Despite overwhelming medical evidence, the league steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that a concussion can cause life-long consequences.  Those who control the flow of funds, and research, must be vigilant to be impervious to outside influences and any invisible strings that might be attached to the money. 

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