Obama Targets College Football

Obama Targets College Football

In a recent interview with the left-leaning New Republic, President Barack Obama targeted college football, rather than the NFL, as the area most in need of rule changes to “reduce violence”:

I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about. [emphasis added]

Though Obama cited “stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions [as NFL players],” there is little current evidence that the well documented Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”) brain injury problem experienced by retired NFL football players is a significant health problem for football players whose careers do not extend beyond college. Indeed, neither of the two most prominent stories about health problems in college football related to concussions–the 2010 suicide of Penn football player Owen Thomas or the 2011 class action lawsuit with former Eastern Illinois football player Adrian Atkinson as the representative plaintiff–demonstrate proof of causality.

The NCAA’s website describes its current response to the issue of concussions, which the President apparently considers inadequate:

The NCAA has taken a leading role in ensuring that athletes are properly protected from and treated for concussions. The injury, even in mild forms, is recognized as a type of traumatic brain injury that requires medical attention and monitoring. . . But by knowing the facts about concussion and taking proper steps to treatment, we can help all athletes enjoy healthy careers.

On Monday Breitbart News asked the NCAA media relations office to comment on the President’s statement. Specifically, we wanted to know if the NCAA believes the President’s assertion that college players experience “some of these same problems with concussions and so forth [as NFL players] and then have nothing to fall back on” is correct. We also wanted to know if the NCAA believes it’s the President’s role to instruct them what they need to think about. 

We’ve not heard back from the NCAA yet, but two of its leading critics readily agreed to talk with Breitbart News on short notice.

In an exclusive interview with Breitbart News, Ramagi Huma, a former linebacker who played college football at UCLA and is currently President of the National College Players Association, acknowledged that though the current evidence of CTE causality among football players who don’t play beyond college is insufficient, President Obama has put the NCAA on notice:

“I think President Obama’s statement has officially ended the ability of NCAA football to hide from the concussion issue. He’s put NCAA football square on the map and it needs to answer the question: ‘ What are you going to do to help prevent current football player from experiencing CTE and help support former players that may be suffering from the symptoms of CTE?’  Common sense says there are likely many former college football players suffering from CTE, but at this point the technology to uncover CTE in living people hasn’t been developed and the will in NCAA football to seek out players that are suffering from CTE hasn’t been there.”

While Huma’s common sense perspective is shared by many, there is at present little scientific evidence to support it. The brain autopsy of  21-year-old University of Pennsylvania linebacker Owen Thomas–whose suicide in 2010 shocked friends and family alike–showed early signs of CTE. Doctors at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy cautioned that his suicide “should not be attributed solely or even primarily to the damage in his brain, given the prevalence of suicide among college students in general.” Significantly, Thomas’ parents told the New York Times that their son “never had a diagnosis of a concussion on or off the football field or even complained of a headache … although they acknowledged he was the kind of player who might have ignored the symptoms to stay on the field.”

Huma, however, argues that monitoring the health of college football players using cutting edge technologies like the Positron Emitting Tomography (“PET”) brain scanners that detected signs of CTE in five living former NFL players recently should be part of the six-part Concussion Awareness and Reduction Emergency (CARE) Plan his organization is promoting to reduce the likelihood of brain trauma in college football players:

1. Reduce contact during practices.

2. Require independent concussion experts to be present during competitions.

3. Freeze the maximum number of regular season games.

4. Long-term monitoring and data collection of former college athletes that have participated in contact sports.

5. Support for former college athletes suffering from degenerative brain conditions associated with participation in college athletics.

6. Warn student-athletes in contact sports about CTE and degenerative brain conditions associated with contact sports as called for by the Sports Legacy Institute.

Huma told Breitbart News that in many ways the NCAA is behind the NFL in addressing health issues related to concussions:

“When you have a union as is the case with the NFL, the NFL is bound by law to negotiate with them in good faith. NCAA football has no obligation to negotiate with its players in good faith. We’re left with other forms of leverage to push the issue.”

“There’s more contact in college football than NFL football and a lot more participants.  But in college only the Ivy League has reduced contact in practice, and with exception of the PAC-12 none of the conferences are addressing this. The conferences should not be off the hook. They can voluntarily come together and address safety. We’re going to get to reform. Our strategy has been to push for voluntary reform.”

Chicago attorney Joseph Siprut, who filed a class action lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of all former college football and soccer players, shares Huma’s concern that the NCAA has not been sufficiently proactive in acknowledging the possibility of CTE and in undertaking preventive actions. The suit he filed charges the NCAA with “failing to implement concussion management plan (CMP) policies at a high level that filter down to member schools.” It further alleges that there was “no direction from the NCAA as to what the CMPs should be for member schools… they’ve therefore established bad CMPs.”

Former Eastern Illinois University football player Adrian Arrington is one of four representative plaintiffs in the case. Two of the other representatives played college football, and the fourth is a woman who played college soccer. All four representative plaintiffs are in their twenties.

Arrington alleged “that NCAA officials knew as early as 2003 that multiple concussions could lead to health problems, yet chose not to require concussion policies until 2010. Arrington claimed he endured five concussions. On several times, he alleges, the team doctor cleared him to return to play one day after his injury.” ESPN reported when the lawsuit was filed in 2011 that “Arrington said he suffers from memory loss, depression and near-daily migraines as a result of his injuries and says he was never coached on how to play more safely.”

In an exclusive interview, attorney Siprut told Breitbart News:

“The issue with CTE is an issue of proof. Some of the leading people in the world are going to have strong opinions on this. We have experts, and there is no serious empirical question that there is a link between impact in football and serious head injuries. As to the difference between college and the NFL, the only difference between the two is the level of volume. Look at boxing. A boxer with a five year career may or may not show CTE, but a boxer with a 25 year career is much more likely to have CTE.

Breitbart News will report the details of the NCAA’s response to President Obama’s statements, as well as the criticisms made by Huma and Siprut, as soon as we receive an official response.