Obama invites top minds in sports to discuss concussions

White House summit hopes to address how little is known about injury and still-growing brains

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is a lover of games played on hard courts, baseball diamonds and in 10-yard increments. His two daughters are active in sports and, like many parents with children on athletic teams, he worries about their safety.

But unlike many of those parents, Obama is uniquely positioned to help address the concerns.

At the White House on Thursday, Obama was hosting a summit with representatives of professional sports leagues, coaches, parents, young athletes, researchers and others to call attention to the issue of youth sports concussions.

Not enough is known about how the injuries may affect still-developing brains, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council said in a report last fall, and the issue concerns the president.

Obama once said he’d “have to think long and hard” before allowing a son to play football because of the risk of head injury.

At the summit, Obama will also highlight millions of dollars in pledges and other support from the NFL, the National Institutes of Health and others to conduct research that could begin to provide answers and improve safety.

“He, as a parent, is concerned about the safety of his own daughters,” said White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri, one of several officials who previewed the White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit for reporters.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that can be caused by a blow to the head. One can also be caused by a strong body blow that jostles the brain around inside the skull. Nearly 250,000 kids and young adults visit hospital emergency rooms each year with brain injuries caused by sports or other recreational activity, the White House said.

Among the largest financial commitments Obama is expected to announce is a $30 million joint effort by the NCAA and the Defence Department to produce research on concussion risks, treatment and management. Concussions and other types of brain injuries are an issue for service members, too. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was to participate in the summit.

The NFL is committing $25 million over the next three years to promote youth sports safety.

The NIH is undertaking a new research effort on the chronic effects of repetitive concussions, work supported by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health through an initial investment of $16 million from the NFL.

UCLA will use $10 million from New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch to launch a program to study sports concussion prevention, outreach, research and treatment for athletes of all ages, but especially youth. The money will also support planning for a national system to determine the incidence of youth sports concussions.

The Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, called for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish and oversee such a system to begin to help provide answers to questions about the risk of youth sports, such as how often the youngest athletes suffer concussions and which sports have the highest rates.

After Obama opens the summit, Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver was scheduled to moderate a panel discussion with Odierno and others. In the afternoon, Obama planned to participate in sports drills on the South Lawn with kids from local YMCA programs.

In a 2013 interview with The New Republic, Obama said football may need to change to prevent injuries.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” Obama said. “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. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

The NFL recently agreed to pay $765 million to settle concussion claims from thousands of former players whose complaints range from headaches to Alzheimer’s disease. That settlement is still awaiting a judge’s approval, while a group of former professional hockey players has filed a class-action lawsuit of their own against the National Hockey League for head injuries sustained on the ice.