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The growing and troublesome story of concussions in American sports took a significant turn Thursday when it left the football field and moved to the East Room of the White House.
There, in the venerable spot where Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy lay in state, and presidents have entertained and been inaugurated, President Obama brought the conversation about head injuries in sports, especially among the young, to a new and urgent level.
Speaking as much as the parent of two athletic daughters as he was as president, Obama sent a clear message: It's time to treat concussions as the serious, wide-ranging, male and female health issue they have become.
"Concussions are not just a football issue," Obama said to more than 200 sports leaders, athletes and parents at the first White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit. "They don't just affect grown men who choose to accept some risk to play a game that they love and that they excel at. Every season, you've got boys and girls who are getting concussions in lacrosse and soccer and wrestling and ice hockey, as well as football.
"And, in fact, the Center for Disease Control reports that in the most recent (annual) data that's available to us, young people made nearly 250,000 emergency room visits with brain injuries from sports and recreation -- 250,000. That number obviously doesn't include kids who see their family doctor or, as is typical, don't seek any medical help."
Washington, we have a problem out there on the playing fields of America.
The White House didn't choose an NFL star to introduce Obama. It asked Tori Bellucci, a high school senior, to do the honors. Bellucci was a standout soccer player until she gave up the game and turned down a college scholarship from Towson after suffering her fifth concussion.
Bellucci is not alone. According to High School RIO (Reporting Information Online), an injury surveillance system out of Colorado, as cited by The Washington Post, only football and boys hockey players report concussions at a higher rate than girls soccer players. Since 2008, high school girls soccer players have reported an average of 14 concussions per 10,000 games played, nearly twice the average for boys soccer (7.30). Football reports 27 concussions per 10,000 games and boys hockey 18.
The irony is that we want children to play sports, with the president noting Michelle Obama's push to combat obesity.
"The first lady thinks everybody needs to move," he said, drawing laughter. "But sports is also just fundamental to who we are as Americans and our culture. We're competitive. We're driven. And sports teach us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed not just on the field but in life."
So football isn't going away anytime soon -- nor is soccer, or any other sport. To that end, several multimillion-dollar concussion initiatives were announced at the White House by the NCAA, the Department of Defense and the NFL, among others.
The money is a drop in the bucket to the billions big-time sports produce around the world. But it is a start.
This is a scary time for the kids who play sports and their parents -- and even for the people in the business of sports. One wonders what the sports world will look like 50 years from now. Will football exist, and what will it look like if it no longer produces the crunching hits that make the highlight reels today? Or will all moms and dads have steered their kids to other sports?
With the NFL solidly out front as the most popular spectator sport in America, and on the eve of the men's World Cup soccer tournament, which will attract hundreds of millions across the globe, the East Room sat at the crossroads of the power of sports, and its perils.
"We've got to have every parent and coach and teacher recognize the signs of concussions," Obama said.
"We have to change a culture that says you suck it up. Identifying a concussion and being able to self-diagnose that this is something that I need to take care of doesn't make you weak. It means you're strong."