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President Barack Obama applauds Victoria Bellucci, a 2014 graduate of Huntingtown High School in Huntingtown, Md., who suffered five concussions playing soccer, during the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit on May 29, 2014.Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press

Noting that he had his bell rung as a young athlete, U.S. President Barack Obama launched a sweeping research and awareness effort Thursday to protect children from concussions.

Mr. Obama told dozens of young athletes that he had been struck hard several times when playing sports and was left with that "ringing sensation in my head," but because far less was known about concussions when he was young, neither he nor his coaches took any precautions.

At a White House gathering intended to raise awareness about the serious – and still not fully understood – consequences of concussions, especially for young people, the President told an audience of students, coaches and medical experts that "we've got to have better research, better data, better safety equipment and better protocols."

Mr. Obama, now mostly a weekend golfer who plays the occasional game of pickup basketball with friends, said that "when I was young and played football briefly, there were a couple of times" when he was hit hard enough in the head to have suffered concussions. "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."

Earlier this year, the President caused a stir when he said he might refuse to allow a son – if he had one – to play football. "I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play," he said in January, adding: "Those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence."

As a parent of two daughters who have played soccer in local D.C. leagues and track and tennis at the elite private school they attend, Mr. Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, share the worries of millions of parents. "There's a lot of concern, but there's a lot of uncertainty," he said at the opening of a day-long summit at the White House. "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."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control's most recent data showed that more than 250,000 young people are taken to emergency rooms with brain injuries annually from playing sports. "That number obviously doesn't include kids who see their family doctor or, as is typical, don't seek any medical help," Mr. Obama said.

The President announced new funding, but, equally importantly, said the biggest change needed was the attitude, still prevalent among many coaches, that young athletes should just keep playing despite hits to the head. "We have to change a culture that says, 'Suck it up,' " he said.

An afternoon sports clinic on the White House South Lawn with young athletes was cancelled because of rain.

The summit also included senior U.S. military representatives because the Pentagon is leading a major effort into traumatic brain injuries suffered by tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade.

In promoting the concussion awareness, prevention and treatment effort, the White House listed a series of major efforts already under way.

They include a $30-million research study jointly funded by the Pentagon and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a $16-million National Institutes of Health study of repetitive concussions funded by the National Football League and a $5-million research effort to develop better helmets and protective gear "for the athlete, the war fighter and others."

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