Are concussions minor injuries not worthy of a public fuss or a scourge requiring a White House mind-meld meeting?
The Obama Administration announced on Thursday the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit, an event scheduled for May 29. Earlier in the week, the administration and its allies ridiculed concerns that Hillary Clinton’s concussion, and subsequent blood clot on the brain, could have caused long-term damage. “Fox contributor Karl Rove baselessly claimed that Hillary Clinton suffered a ‘traumatic brain injury’ in a 2012 fall,” ridiculed Media Matters. But that’s precisely how the medical community defines a concussion–a mild traumatic brain injury. By week’s end, concussions again became a serious concern for the president and his allies in the announcement of the concussion conference.
Before the athletes, academics, and activists gather at the White House, they might want to get their stories straight. “In the United States,” a 2012 article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine claims, “an estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually.” Another scholarly article published that same year pointed to “between 1.6 and 3.8 million” sports concussions happening every year in the U.S.
Fuzzy math isn’t a numbers game confined to Washington.
In researching my book The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, I came across one group of scientists who found that concussions stemmed more from rotational forces and another who found translational forces the culprit. I came across a scholarly article that found concussions primarily in rough boys’ sports and another article finding the injury more prevalent among girl athletes. Following my book’s release, I watched Boston University’s celebrity scientist Ann McKee claim in the PBS documentary League of Denial, “I’m really wondering on some level if every football player doesn’t have this,” i.e., chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I read Ann McKee in the book League of Denial state of CTE among football players, “I don’t think everybody has it.”
Does football, the team sport enduring the most concussions by rate and number, lead to permanent damage of the kind that Karl Rove wondered aloud if Hillary Clinton suffered from? “I would not let my son play pro football,” the president told David Remnick earlier this year. Barack Obama compared football to smoking–and its brain risks to boxing. A few scientists agree with his assessment. Several studies don’t.
A 2012 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of 3,500 former NFL players expected 10 deaths from brain and nervous system diseases. They found 12. Researchers later theorized that the increased risk of such brain diseases may stem in part from the fact that the 3,500 football players lived longer, and thus were more susceptible to Alzheimer’s and other similar maladies than their peers in society. Mayo Clinic researchers hypothesized elevated neurodegenerative-disease rates in several hundred mid-century high school football players vis-a-vis members of the band, choir, and glee club. Their study contradicted their hypothesis. The rates of Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease came in slightly higher among the musical students, and overall no statistically significant disparities existed between the athletes and musicians. Last year, a pilot study of South Dakota youth football players found no decrease in cognitive function after a full season. The Journal of Child Neurology article pointed out, “There were, in fact, significant improvements in some measures of postural stability, oculomotor performance, and neurocognitive function.”
The uproar over concussions has happily raised awareness of the injury’s dangers. Coaches with a clue don’t dare leave players in games after the injury and parents know enough to pull the plug on collision sports if a child repeatedly falls victim to a mild traumatic brain injury. But hysteria has compelled some parents to remove their kids from playing fields. Football, along with other traditional team sports, has witnessed a dramatic decline in participation in recent years as a result, at least partially, of the inordinate media attention on the risks of youth sports. But it’s not brains but bellies that signal the primary health threat to kids. Here, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign more directly speaks to the specter that haunts America’s youth than her husband’s concussion conference.
It would be nice if the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit catalyzes the search for answers to the lingering questions regarding concussions. But 109 years after Theodore Roosevelt convened a White House conference on unnecessary roughness in football, doctors still clinically diagnose the injury and prescribe rest as the best medicine. Unfortunately, loud voices claim that we understand more than we do on concussions. One wonders if the Obama Administration conference will acknowledge this less-than-ideal reality. Intellectual humility, a quality displayed by good scientists, isn’t normally found, after all, within any White House.
Athletes suffering from concussions have the benefit of neither a test definitively flagging the mild traumatic brain injury nor a pill to cure them. What we know about concussions after all these years is that we don’t know all that much.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.