Obama to host a White House summit on growing concerns over sports head injuries

May 28, 2014

Susan Walsh/AP – Maria Hanes, 19, of Santa Cruz and President Barack Obama

Susan Walsh/AP – Maria Hanes, 19, of Santa Cruz, Calif., left, has President Barack Obama pull back a cushioned helmet as Obama toured the 2014 White House Science Fair exhibits that are on display in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 27, 2014. Hanes was explaining how she developed a concussion cushion football helmet.



Chatting 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 sentence.

McMahon, he noted, is “suffering from dementia.

The brain-injury reference was no accident. Hanes’s little brother suffered his fourth concussion while playing the sport and can no longer play under doctor’s orders. The 19-year-old from Lancaster, Calif., has developed a “Concussion Cushion” — a gel-filled helmet cover that softens the impact when two helmets collide.“My love of football drove me toward doing this,” said Hanes, 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.”Hanes and Obama will join 200 sports officials, medical experts, parent activists and young athletes Thursday 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.

It’s the latest example of how the White House is attempting to leverage the president’s position to influence social normsin areas not directly under his control. Aides say the push was prompted in part by conversations that Obama had during last year’s National Football League playoffs with his press secretary, Jay Carney, who, like the president, has young children who play sports.

“The president approaches the concussions issue as a parent,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an interview. She compared Obama’s approach to his recent focus on other issues such as sexual assault on college campuses and low-income students’ access to higher education. “A lot of change he can do is not just outside of Washington, but also outside the parameters of the government,” Palmieri said.

The 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 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 of sports altogether.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was invited to attend the summit, as well as representatives from the NCAA, Major League Soccer, the NFL Players Association, the U.S. Soccer Federation and medical institutions such as Children’s National Medical Center. Goodell is not expected to attend, but another NFL representative will likely come in his place.

The 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 research.

This 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, he said, head contact was reduced by about 40 percent.

Incidents 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 sued over the impact of past concussions, on the grounds it might be insufficient.

But the issue has also become important for parents of young athletes in sports ranging from hockey to soccer, in part because new research suggests that younger brains are more susceptible than adult ones to repeated blows.

“It 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. “There is a lot of reason to be more concerned about repetitive injury in young people.”

Cantu 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. Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said “there is not one published study that supports the idea that sub-concussive blows cause long-term damage.”

Guskiewicz, 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.”

Bob 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 under 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.”

New private-public research initiatives will be announced Thursday as part of the conference, though the White House has not released specifics. The NFL has already launched a $60 million study along with General Electric, Under Armour and the Army, and donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health, though Cantu said the country needed “credible research” not funded by the sports industry.

Every state now has a law mandating that players must leave the field if they are suspected of having experienced a concussion, and can only return if they have been examined by a health professional with training in concussion management.

Obama 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.”

A year later, he compared the sport to boxing, telling the The New Yorker, “I would not let my son play pro football.”

Obama’s 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 topic of conversation” between them because they affect so many players.

“For 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.”

Love witnessed the impact of brain injuries firsthand while in college: his roommate never walked back on the football field after suffering a concussion during his first year.

Hanes’s 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 occasion.

She 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.

“It’s frightening,” Mary Hanes said. When it comes to football, she added: “He’s done.




  1. The Weekly Standard (blog) 
    The NFL commissioner is headed to the White House to dicuss concussions in sports, the Washington Post reports. He’ll join President Obama …
Washington Post
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5 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Dave Pear
    May 28th, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    Dear President Obama,

    When will the NFL allow retired players access to their full earned disability benefits for Total and Permanent disability also called Football Degenerative or Inactive A? (Too many names). In 1995 I was rated 80% or greater disabled by the NFL’s own doctor Hugh Unger and he wrote in his medical examination report, “sedentary, no excessive standing no bending and no lifting over 7 to 15 pounds. must be able to rest frequently”. I also needed my feet elevated because of 1 neck and 3 low back fusions. I was DENIED disability benefits from the NFL and they told me to go find a sedentary job! The NFL did not even lift a little finger to help me or my family. There are so many retired players (especially pre-1993 players) who have also been denied their disability because the Groom Law Group tells the voting members on the disability board how to vote – according to Dave Duerson who committed suicide and was a voting board member for the plan). For 25 years Gene Upshaw stood behind a Federal law that does not exist. Gene claimed, “you can’t receive a pension and a disability benefit, that’s the law”. But it is not the law and Upshaw was proven to be a fraud. Upshaw helped scammed retired disabled players out of their valid claims for disability benefits and these claims need to be reopened and if only the US Department of Labor would audit the plan. The findings would be shocking and criminal. The Bell/Rozelle disability plan is a complete debacle and a sham and it is not lawful. It was designed to deny valid disability claims.

    Thank you.

    Dave Pear
    Pro Bowl 1978
    Super Bowl XV

    May 28th, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    The NFL and the Owners are liable in the corruption of Youth Athletics. Beginning with the 1960’s ” PUNT, PASS, and KICK ” competition – funnelling youth athletics into the game of Football, to today’s campaign financed by the OWNERS of the new and improved, “HEADS UP” CAMPAIGN, directed and designed and FINANCED by the NFL for the Mother’s of America into believing their children will be safe playing the sport.

    Next comes the Major University Football Programs [IN BED with the NFL] recruiting Junior High School Athletes, under the pretense that they will be awarded a “free scholarship”. What a fraud! A student who works 20 hours per work at Burger King can pay for his scholarship.

    Besides, they will be able to walk, talk, and enjoy life in their mid 40’s and 50’s. If they play football – good luck seeing their 60’s!

    L.A. RAMS 1974-76

  3. Brandi Winans
    May 30th, 2014 at 4:49 am #

    I have been a sponge since 2007 learning everything I possibly could about concussions and repeated hits to the head. my husband was former NFL player Jeff Winans who this past January after autopsy was diagnosed with CTE. I wrote a book called the flip side of glory, detailing a memoir of our life experiences in progress of behavior problems. I’m currently writing the flip side of glory, the final chapter coming full circle, also including additional resources and detailing our love story of how we got back together after divorcing, because of my education and learning about the behavior situation with concussions. I’m on the family advisory board for sports legacy Institute, and the speaker for the national football players Women’s Association. I would love to be there with President Obama and let him know what goes on behind closed doors when the shoulder pads and helmets come off. Brandi Winans

  4. Gordon Arnold Wright
    June 2nd, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    Brandi Winans,

    I offer my belated condolences concerning your beloved Jeff.

    I congratulate you on your book and thank you for your continued support for families and women who love the great Athlete’s who played football in the NFL past, present and future.

    I met and fell head over heels in love with Gordon in 1999 and I haven’t stopped yet.

    I just wish I had full disclosure beforehand and help afterwards coping with Gordon’s concussion damage issues. Steven Braggs knows, he explained Gordon’s episodes of forgetfulness to me when we used to play golf together.

    I have stomach cancer. I am preparing for my responsible departure.

    I did my best to love and accept Gordon’s forever lover by the name of NFL Professional Football. It’s like accepting the fact that there will always be another woman in the bedroom but for Gordon that woman was and is the NFL.

    We both hated asking for help when we needed help but we truly appreciated everyone who helped us with the HVAC system; it was hot as hell in Florida without it! Again thanks to everyone!

    Glendora Wright
    Care Giver Wife of Gordon A. Wright (2005-2014)

  5. Mike Davis
    June 13th, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    I believe you have a pretty good idea about me & what makes me tick..I read your Blog every chance I get & enjoy the content of all subject matter…And to mention we were teammates…I think you’re getting the idea about now….What the heck is Mike buttering me up for???? Well Dave ol pal..The idea of The President having a summit on sports concussions..and the sensational & successful blog of yours, I’m asking you to pull some strings, work your magic and get me on that panel..I need to be on it.
    Mike Davis
    Raiders 1977 – 87