President Barack Obama told a summit on avoiding sports-related concussions that he can relate: a few dings in the head during his brief football career might have led to a concussion or two.
“When I was young and played football briefly, there were a couple of times where I’m sure that that ringing sensation in my head and the need to sit down for a while might have been a mild concussion,” Obama said, adding that “at the time you didn’t think anything of it.”
He said awareness of concussions have improved, “but not by much” and that the total number of young people who are affected by them is “probably bigger than we know.”
Obama was introduced at the event by Victoria Bellucci, a recent Maryland high school graduate who suffered five concussions during four years of women's varsity soccer, causing her to turn down a full scholarship to play soccer at Towson University.
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Obama noted that sports are good for public health, “fundamental to who we are as Americans” and that he turns to sports to relax -- “whether it’s a pick-up basketball game ... or more sedate pastimes like golf, or watching SportsCenter.” His daughters -- Malia and Sasha -- have played “everything from soccer to basketball and tennis and track.”
But, he said there’s an increasing awareness of concussions in school sports -- not just among professional football players.
“Every season, you’ve got boys and girls who are getting concussions in lacrosse and soccer and wrestling and ice hockey, as well as football,” he said, noting a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said young people made nearly 250,000 emergency room visits with brain injuries from sports and recreation.
He said a report last fall pointed to gaps in understanding the effects and treatment for concussions and that many parents are left wondering whether their children are wearing the proper safety equipment, “or whether they should have their kids participate in any full-contact sports at all.”
He said he hoped the White House summit could come up with some answers. Attendees included Little League officials, brain experts and sports doctors, along with the president of the NCAA, the Major League Soccer commissioner, and senior leadership from the National Hockey League, US Soccer, the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
“The one thing we can agree on is, is that sports are vital to this country and it’s a responsibility for us to make sure that young, talented kids like Tori are able to participate as safely as possible and that we are doing our job, both as parents and school administrators, coaches, to look after them the way they need to be looked after,” he said.
He noted all 50 states have passed laws requiring concussed athletes to get medical clearance before they return to play and the NFL in March donated $45 million to a program that emphasizes coach training and player safety.
The CDC has also developed a public awareness campaign for parents, and athletes, and coaches, and school staff called “ Heads Up.”
But Obama said there’s more work to do, including getting athletes to admit to injuries when they happen: “We have to change a culture that says you suck it up. Identifying a concussion and being able to self-diagnose that this is something that I need to take care of doesn’t make you weak -- it means you’re strong.”
He noted that traumatic brain injuries are a signature issue of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the administration is directing $100 million in new research to treat such injuries.
The NCAA and the Department of Defense are teaming up to commit $30 million for concussion education and a study involving up to 37,000 college athletes, which will be the most comprehensive concussion study ever, Obama said.