Today is MomsTEAM's twelfth anniversary! It was on this day in 2000 that our website went live.
On our anniversary in years past I have blogged about what happened in the previous 12 months in youth sports, but this year the focus will be on youth football.
Why the narrower focus? Well, for two big reasons.
First, because the long, very hot, yet wonderfully productive summer now drawing to a close will be long remembered at MomsTEAM as the "summer of football." We have been living and breathing youth and high school football since early winter, huddling with folks in Oklahoma on an exciting concussion project (see photo). When I look back on this summer I will see in my mind's eye the faces of the hundreds if not thousands of youth and high school football moms and dads who I have been working with, not just from Oklahoma but in just about every state in the nation, to make the sport safer.
Second, because yesterday I had a chance to visit the Mecca of Football: the N.F.L.'s impressive headquarters on Park Avenue in New York City. I was there to attend a luncheon co-hosted by the league's commissioner, Roger Goodell, and Executive Director of USA Football, Scott Hallenbeck, at which they unveiled for selected media and some bloggers their new 4-Step Game Plan and Heads Up Football programs, both of which are designed to make the sport of football safer for our sons and daughters.
In case you haven't noticed, 2012 has been a year in which football, pardon the pun, has been taking a lot of hits. The well-publicized lawsuits by former players against the N.F.L., the suicide of Junior Seau, a ‘Chicken Little-sky is falling' mentality by some prominent concussion experts and former athletes, some of whom suggest that the sport is simply too dangerous to be played at all at the youth level, and continuing research on the short- and long-term effects of concussion on cognitive function and brain health, have created a pretty toxic environment for the sport.
Not surprisingly, the media feeding frenzy has resulted, anecdotal evidence suggests, in a sharp drop in youth football registrations for this fall's season, with parents fearful that playing football will almost inevitably expose their kid to an unreasonable risk of injury (which, of course, is patently untrue; more than 7 million kids in the U.S. currently play football, very few of whom, statistically speaking and despite a few well-publicized cases - are likely to end up committing suicide because of the hits they sustained playing the sport, and millions upon countless millions who have played football over the past century without apparent ill effect). Sadly, there are some who are only too happy to fan the flames of that fear for personal, professional, and/or financial advantage.
Most of the presentation I attended in the Big Apple yesterday was devoted to the subject of concussions. As someone who is usually in the position of moderating a discussion of concussions or giving a keynote address at a conference or convention on how to keep young athletes safe, and given the deep knowledge I have on the subject as a result of MomsTEAM's work as the "pioneer" in youth sports concussion education, I have to admit I found myself in the somewhat unique position of knowing nearly as much about concussions as some of the presenters.
As a result, I found it very difficult not to raise my hand to ask the presenters some difficult questions, in particular to correct the impression that a representative from the CDC gave that concussions in football can be prevented. (As anyone who has been visiting MomsTEAM's Concussion Safety Center for the past twelve years knows, science and technology have yet to come up with a way to prevent concussions; the most we can realistically hope to do at this point is a better job of identifying concussions when they occur and managing them in such a way as to keep the recovery time to a minimum and to keep kids from returning before their brains have fully healed so as to minimize the risk of serious, long-term effects, or even, in rare cases, death).
We heard presentations by neuropsychologist Gerard Gioia, PhD of the National Children's Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland (co-author, by the way, of my favorite iPhone concussion app) and head injury consultant, Elizabeth Pieroth, Psy.D. While it would have nice to have a medical doctor, perhaps a pediatrician with a focus on concussions, to speak to an audience who mostly write about and for moms, both Gioia and Pieroth gave informative talks in the short time they had.
The presentation on USA Football's Heads Up program - a program designed to teach kids, and, more importantly, the coaches who teach the kids, how to tackle in a way that minimizes helmet-on-helmet and helmet-on-body contact, and one of the four steps in its Four Step Game Plan for improving football safety - was definitely worth hearing about and is a big step in the right direction towards taking the head out of football, although, again, I couldn't help but ask - at least to myself - what took them so long: teaching heads up tackling is something that MomsTEAM and one of our bloggers, former pro football player Bobby Hosea, have been promoting for at least four years!
A video about the Heads Up program says that the N.F.L. and USA Football were trying to "change the culture of the sport of football" to make it safer. I was really interested in hearing how exactly they proposed to do that, especially in terms of changing the macho culture of the sport and breaking the "code of silence" that continues to prompt players at every level of football, whether it be N.F.L., college, high school or youth - to hide concussion symptoms in order to stay in the game and avoid being perceived as somehow letting their coach, their teammates, or their parents down.
I wanted to ask them for their reaction to a recent survey of college athletes in contact and collision sports at the University of Pennsylvania which found that, despite being educated about the dangers of continuing to play with concussion symptoms, most are still very reluctant to report symptoms because they want to stay in the game, and to comment on reports that the N.F.L. players' union was against putting sensors in helmets that would alert the sideline to hits of a sufficient magnitude to cause concussion, which may be the technological solution (or, in football parlance 'end-around') to the chronic under-reporting problem. Interestingly, before I was able to ask the culture question, it was posed by the only "daddy blogger" in the audience!
There were a lot of other questions I didn't get a chance to ask (which I will write about in my next blog as part of a larger discussion of how far we have come in recent years in concussion prevention, identification and management, and how far we still have to go). As readers of this space well know, I have sometimes been critical of the league, and just because I was treated to a nice lunch and got to tour N.F.L. headquarters isn't going to suddenly turn me into a starry-eyed apologist for the league. However, I am very impressed with their new programs, and know they are sincere in wanting to keep kids in the game.
During my keynote address at the 2008 National Concussion Safety Summit in California, I took the league to task for not doing a lot more than it was doing at that point on concussion safety. Among my suggestions then were that the N.F.L. run PSAs during game telecasts on concussion safety, a step the league took, as I recall, the very next year. To its credit and to that of the others with a stake in the concussion issue, many of the steps I recommended be taken to improve concussion safety four years ago have been implemented. Most notably, strong concussion safety laws in 40 states and the District of Columbia have been enacted, most of which N.F.L. pushed very hard to get enacted.
Work to do
Which is not to say that there isn't a lot more that USA Football and the N.F.L. can and should be doing to make football safer and to calm the fears of nervous parents, But, for now, my impression after my trip to New York was that the N.F.L. and its youth football partner, USA Football, are genuine in their desire to take steps to make the sport safer. Whatever one might say about how the N.F.L. has handled - or mishandled - the whole concussion issue in the past, I choose to look forward, to pushing for positive change, not pointing fingers and rehashing the past.
I have never been one of those on the far end of the debate spectrum calling for abolishing football. My goal has and will continue to be to make the sport safer, but to leave it to parents to decide, based on their own circumstances, whether their son or daughter starts playing, or continues to play, football.
To make that decision, however, parents deserve solid, objective, balanced, well-researched information from a website that was the pioneer in concussion safety education for parents when we started on August 23, 2000, and continues to strive to be the trusted source of that information today.
I look forward to working with the N.F.L. and USA Football in that continuing effort.