WASHINGTON - Saying he wants kids to play sports but play safely, President Barack Obama called Thursday for more and better research into the effects and treatment of concussions in youth athletes. The issue is one of growing concern for parents who spend weekends driving their kids from one game to another.
But without direct authority over youth sports leagues, Obama's ability to address the issue meaningfully is limited to calling for research and trying to jumpstart a national conversation to teach parents, coaches and young athletes about concussions - the goal of a summit he hosted at the White House.
He also said a new attitude is needed where players who have been hit don't feel wimpy for sitting out a game or two.
"We have to change a culture that says you suck it up," Obama said, adding that he probably suffered mild concussions as a young football player. He noted that concussions are also an issue in soccer, hockey, lacrosse and other contact sports.
The event brought together representatives of professional and college sports associations, coaches, parents, young athletes, doctors and others. The president was introduced by Victoria Bellucci, a high school graduate from Huntingtown, Maryland, who suffered five concussions during her high school and club soccer career.
Victoria said her injuries made it hard to focus on her assignments. She eventually turned down a full scholarship to play soccer at Towson University in Maryland and will instead attend Flagler College in Florida in the fall, the White House said.
"Concussions have drastically altered my life," she said.
Obama, an avid sports fan whose two daughters are active in sports, also highlighted millions of dollars in pledges from the NFL, the National Institutes of Health and others to conduct research that could begin to provide answers and improve safety.
"We want our kids participating in sports," he said. "As parents, though, we want to keep them safe."
Nearly 250,000 kids and young adults visit hospital emergency rooms each year with brain injuries caused by sports or other recreational activity, Obama said. He noted that the figure excludes those who see a family doctor or seek no treatment.
Obama previously had waded into the debate over concussions, saying last year that he'd have to think "long and hard" about allowing a son to play football because of the risk of head injury.
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 NHL for head injuries sustained on the ice.
Among the financial pledges Obama highlighted is a $30 million joint research effort by the NCAA and Defense Department and an NFL commitment of $25 million over the next three years to promote youth sports safety.
UCLA also will use $10 million from New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, who attended the summit, 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.
Panelists who discussed the issue after Obama spoke agreed that information and education are important. Otherwise, parents' fears about on-field safety could lead them to pull their kids from team sports, an outcome the panelists agreed would be harmful for young people because of the benefits of participation in athletics.
"Do you replace kicking a soccer ball with Doritos?" asked former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said he worries that without education "we walk away from sports." He said he would not have attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, "if not for sports."
Odierno participated in the summit because concussions are a form of traumatic brain injury, which has become a signature issue of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the widespread use by insurgents of improvised explosive devices.
Jack Crowe, a former head football coach at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, who was not on the panel, said after the summit that what's needed is a new climate that puts as much emphasis on safety as on winning.