Obama elevates concussion talk

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A new book and documentary describe the only public instance in which the NFL has acknowledged a link between playing football and brain damage. (5:28)

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama called Thursday for more robust research into youth concussions, saying there remains deep uncertainty over both the scope of the troubling issue and the long-term impacts on young people.

"We want our kids participating in sports," Obama said as he opened a day-long summit on concussions at the White House. "As parents, though, we want to keep them safe and that means we have to have better information."

The summit signaled an effort by Obama to use the power of the presidency to elevate a national conversation over youth concussions. The White House brought together representatives of professional sports leagues, coaches, parents, young athletes, medical professionals and others for the event.

Obama, an avid sports fan and father of two daughters involved in athletics, highlighted millions of dollars in pledges and other support from the National Football League, the National Institutes of Health and others to conduct research that could begin to provide answers and improve safety.

Among the financial commitments is a $30 million joint research effort by the NCAA and the Department of Defense and an NFL commitment of $25 million over the next three years to promote youth sports safety.

The president said additional research needs to also be combined with a broader recognition of the need to take the matter seriously.

"We have to change a culture that says, 'Suck it up,'" he said.

Obama had waded into the debate over concussions before, saying that if he had sons, he would "have to think long and hard" about whether he would allow them to play football. As a father, Obama tried to broaden out the discussion over head injuries, saying that young people who play soccer, lacrosse, hockey and other sports also are at risk.

The president also mentioned that some communities are starting to ask if young kids should play tackle football. He noted USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport, has banned body-checking at the 12-and-under level.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that can be caused by a blow to the head, or a blow to the body powerful enough to jostle 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.

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.

Obama framed the concussion issue for the more than 200 attendees within the larger context of sedentary behavior among American youth, two-thirds of whom are not physically active daily.

"There's a public health interest in people participating in sports," he said, adding, "I'd be much more troubled if young people shied away from sports."

Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading doctor on the sports concussion topic, attended the event as an audience member and said he wanted more discussion about policies and prevention strategies.

"The irony is the NFL has taken the lead on changing its rules, and that has made the game safer," Cantu said, "but we haven't seen the same [reforms] at the college, high school and youth levels. We need to reduce the amount of contact.

"The message I got today was that we need more education, which of course is good. And we need more research, which I also agree with. What I didn't hear is talk about rules changes like moving up the kickoff, which we need."

On a panel discussion after Obama spoke, former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington promoted Heads Up Football, a training program backed by the NFL that teaches better tackling form. He argued that it's OK for small kids to play tackle, saying, "Being scared is not who we are."

Arrington said he suffered four concussions as an NFL player. However, he said, only one was from tackling. The other three were from his head hitting the ground twice and the kneecap of an opposing player once.

Several of the panelists alluded to the rising concerns that parents have about concussions as a barrier to sports participation. Moderator Pam Oliver, a television sideline reporter, referred to it as "hysteria."

Dr. Gerry Gioia, another panelist who supports tackle for little kids, says, "We gotta have the mom vote." He said educating parents about concussion recognition and treatment is the key.

The White House summit was also looking at concussions and other brain injuries suffered by service members. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was also participating in the summit.

An afternoon sports clinic on the South Lawn with Obama and kids from local YMCA programs was canceled because of rainy weather.

Other research efforts on concussions and head injuries include:

• An NIH project looking at the chronic effects of repetitive concussions. The work is 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 risks of youth sports, such as how often the youngest athletes suffer concussions and which sports have the highest rates.

Information from The Associated Press and "Outside the Lines" reporter Tom Farrey was included in this report.