President Barack Obama on Thursday addressed the issue of concussions in youth athletics — even admitting he once may have suffered one — but failed to challenge the large corporate sports entities that have promoted the hard-hitting culture at the epicenter of the traumatic brain injury epidemic.
Those same interests, the National Football League, National Collegiate Athletic Association and ESPN, instead serve as the corporate partners donating millions of dollars to the initiatives the president announced in his remarks.
At the White House’s "Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit," Obama cited his “convening power” to bring together public and private stakeholders with a range of views to further study the problem of concussions and raise awareness of them, and laid out his own connection to the issue.
“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,” the president said. “At the time you didn’t think anything of it. The awareness is improved today, but not by much. So the total number of young people who are impacted by this early on is probably bigger than we know.”
But in his call for more attention to the problem of sports-related brain injuries in young people, the president sidestepped some of the most pressing questions plaguing amateur athletics — like whether college athletes have the right to unionize. He raised no issues with the culpability of corporate entities that have monetized the kind of risky hard hits that lead to concussions by garnering the attention and support of young people.
“We don’t have solid numbers, and that tells me that at every level we're all still trying to fully grasp what's going on with this issue,” Obama said. “Communities are wondering how young it is to start tackle football, for example. Parents are wondering whether their kids are learning the right techniques,” he noted.
Much about head injuries in the sports arena is already known. The lengths to which the National Football League went to cover up the concussion epidemic and the devastating and fatal effects on its former players have been well documented. In one 2012 study, scientists at Boston University discovered 28 new cases of “chronic brain damage” in deceased football players, including one 17-year-old who didn't live to play football beyond high school. In 2013, the NFL reached a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players over traumatic brain injuries they suffered, the league’s most public admission that a link between contact in sports and brain damage exists. In 2014, a federal judge rejected that settlement on the grounds it might not go far enough to cover players who need aid.
Despite the medical research linking “hard hits” to the epidemic of brain damage in athletes, Obama did not use those two words on Thursday. He declined to offer even the most veiled criticism of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NFL or ESPN, which he admits to watching regularly, for their place in promoting a hard-hitting culture. And his only mentions of the NFL and NCAA were positive, as he announced millions of dollars they will contribute to partnerships with the government to advance concussion research.
“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.
“The NFL is committing $25 million of new funding over the next three years to test strategies like creating health and safety forums for parents, and they’re building on the program piloted by my own Chicago Bears to get more trainers at high school games,” he said.
Although Obama gave love to his hometown Bears, he conspicuously avoided mentioning Chicagoland’s Northwestern University, where football players have signed union cards and were granted the right to unionize by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. Northwestern has filed an appeal, which was accepted by the national NLRB in Washington. This fight, too, is at the center of the concussion debate.
Northwestern athletes say they want a place at the bargaining table with their university and the NCAA, an entity that makes billions of dollars off of athletes they do not pay and who receive no guarantee of health care beyond their playing days.
The NCAA has made gestures to try to quell what has been a growing firestorm, with the potential to change the nature of college athletics permanently. But even as it donates millions of dollars to the government to research traumatic brain injury, it has made no promises of providing care for players who have left its ranks with brain damage or any other injuries.
The NCAA is home to more than 400,000 student athletes. In 2012, it generated more than $870 million in revenue.
Obama also announced the sports network ESPN — which has valorized tough play — as another corporate contributor to the new research program. For years, ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter program ran a recurring feature “The Hardest Hits in College Football.” The network maintains lucrative contracts with the both NFL and NCAA’s conferences to broadcast games. And while it originally partnered with PBS's Frontline for a comprehensive look at concussions — a special that ran as “League of Denial” — ESPN dropped its support of the documentary before it aired under pressure from the NFL.
When asked by Yahoo News whether Obama supports NCAA players' unionization attempts or their right to extended health care after their college careers, White House press secretary Jay Carney would not take a position on either issue, saying he had not discussed them with the president.
Yahoo News Chief Washington Correspondent Olivier Knox contributed to this report.