Nice start on sports safety, Mr. President.
But Barack Obama is still no Teddy Roosevelt.
The 44th President of the United States called a White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit on Thursday and cited a string of initiatives aimed at keeping heads safe while at play: a $30-million study by the Pentagon and the National College Athletic Association, $16-million from the National Football League to fund research at the National Institutes of Health, and a $5-million effort to develop safer head gear.
“We welcome this attention and thoughtful evaluation of research, all with the desire to make contact games safer and healthier for our children,” said Canadian Governor-General David Johnston, himself once an accomplished hockey player and long an advocate of safer sports.
“We’ve got to have better research,” the President told the media assembled in Washington.
Of course we do, but more research is needed on everything from Lyme disease to mental illness, yet that does not mean we wait and do not work with what is available – what is possible.
This sentiment is echoed by hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, who has worked for years on player safety.
“This indicates a President’s interest, which is never not helpful, and perhaps delivers a message that he expects actions from sports’ decision-makers consistent with the importance of our games and with the health of our athletes,” said Mr. Dryden.
“It would have been helpful if he had asked those who lead leagues in the affected sports for a plan as to what they are going to do. Otherwise, this seems like a gathering appropriate to the circumstances around concussions of about two years ago.”
Nothing concrete came out of this gathering. Mr. Obama said if he had a son he would have to “think long and hard before I’d let him play [football]” – and he predicted that contact sports “will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”
It needn’t be so gradual.
The President said there are no “solid numbers” available, yet there is most assuredly solid evidence. Just ask any of the 50 or so elite NHL players – Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Chris Pronger, so many others – who have lost careers to head injury. Ask the long list of NFLers suing their league. Ask the medical experts such as Canada’s Dr. Charles Tator and Dr. Paul Echlin. Ask the families of soldiers dealing with traumatic brain injuries.
Mr. Obama called for “better data, better safety equipment, better protocols” – again, all important, but no excuse for not demanding that these sports take whatever decisive action is possible and sensible immediately.
He could have done so much more.
The office of the President of the United States is not helpless when it comes to acting decisively on sports concern.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt hauled the football world into the Oval Office and forced necessary changes on the game.
The game had no control over itself and was becoming increasingly violent. Harvard University had even adapted Napoleon’s battle tactics, attacking in a “Flying Wedge” that had the players target a single lineman. As there was no forward passing, it was both effective and dangerous.
Equipment was minimal and injuries were mounting from this and other equally violent tactics. Some educators called for an outright ban on the sport.
According to historical information compiled by mental floss magazine, the Chicago Tribune counted 18 deaths and 137 serious injuries in the 1905 season alone.
“Football is on trial,” Mr. Roosevelt declared from his bully pulpit as the footballers scurried to the White House. Change your sport or I will pass an executive order to outlaw it, he warned.
And they did change. All sorts of penalties and rules soon came in, including the forward pass. Now it appears football, along with many other sports, needs another “trial.”
Canadian politicians have taken runs at hockey violence for more than a century, none of them successful.
One, Roy McMurtry, fought for change in the 1970s and in his recent Memoirs and Reflections concedes the league retains its “medieval approach” to safety – with the result being more and more families turn away from this country’s national sport.
What Barack Obama could have done Thursday was pull a Roosevelt – tell all sports where head injuries are an issue that enough is enough, there is more than enough research and damage to demand sensible action.
Not once there is more research and more data … but now.
Which is still too late for too many.