Chatting about football in the Blue Room of the White House this week with President Obama, Maria Hanes brought up the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl champion quarterback Jim McMahon — only to have Obama finish her sentence.
McMahon, he noted, is “suffering from dementia.”
The brain-injury reference was not surprising. Hanes’s little brother suffered his fourth concussion while playing the sport and, under doctor’s orders, can no longer participate. In response, she developed a “Concussion Cushion” — a gel-filled helmet cover that softens the impact when two helmets collide.
“My love of football drove me toward doing this,” said Hanes, 19, of Lancaster, Calif., a former high school team manager who has dreamed of becoming the nation’s first female college football coach. “I want football to have a future, but if things like this don’t get fixed, it won’t have a future.”
The threat of brain damage from America’s most popular sport has become a widespread cultural concern, with profound implications for professional sports, the health of athletes and worried parents across the country.
Now Obama is taking the unusual step of joining the discussion, both as president and as an avid sports fan and sympathetic parent of two teenage daughters. It is a role he has embraced in the past to discuss the cost of college, the challenges facing young black men, and the broader plight of the American middle class.
Football cuts across many of those cultural lines, affecting African Americans, who make up a significant portion of its professional ranks; suburban and rural white teenagers who play on the local level; and adults of all backgrounds who passionately follow the sport.
On Thursday, Obama will bring together 200 sports officials, medical experts, parent activists and young athletes for the first White House summit on sports concussions. The gathering is aimed at finding new ways to identify, treat and prevent serious head injuries, particularly in youth sports.
White House press secretary Jay Carney — who, like the president, has children who play sports — said the event grew out of conversations he had with Obama on the subject.
“The president approaches the concussions issue as a parent,” White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an interview, adding, “A lot of change he can do is not just outside of Washington, but also outside the parameters of the government.”
The Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit comes nearly a century after President Theodore Roosevelt summoned several Ivy League coaches and officials to the White House to warn them that they had to make football less deadly. The issue of head injuries has sparked lawsuits and union organizing efforts while prompting some parents to pull their children out of sports.
Representatives from the National Football League, the NCAA, Major League Soccer, the NFL Players Association, the U.S. Soccer Federation and medical institutions such as Children’s National Medical Center will attend Thursday’s conference.
The summit will feature an on-site training session for young soccer and football players on how to avoid head injuries — complete with drills on the South Lawn — as well as panel discussions on the latest scientific research.
“This is obviously very important, for a lot of different levels of play,” said Julian Bailes, chairman of the medical advisory board for Pop Warner, the nation’s oldest youth football league. After Pop Warner banned intentional head-to-head contact three years ago, Bailes said, head contact was reduced by about 40 percent.
Incidents involving head injuries among professional players have garnered big headlines in recent years. And in January, a federal judge declined to grant preliminary approval of a $765 million settlement between the NFL and former players who had sued over the impact of past concussions, on the grounds it might be insufficient.
But the issue also has become important for parents of young athletes in sports ranging from ice hockey to lacrosse, in part because new research suggests that younger brains are more susceptible than adult ones to repeated blows.
“It involves structural differences between the growing brain and the adult brain’s connectivity, or circuitry,” said Boston University School of Medicine professor Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to both the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
Cantu and others cite recent studies that show “repetitive head banging can cause loss of brain substance” when comparing preseason cognition studies of athletes to postseason tests. But there is debate on whether the loss is permanent.
Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said that “there is not one published study that supports the idea that sub-concussive blows cause long-term damage.”
Guskiewicz, who serves as an adviser on the NFL head, neck and spine committee and the NCAA’s concussion committee, said media coverage has fueled “a paranoia where people think there’s a concussions epidemic.”
Bob Gfeller, who lost his 15-year-old son Matthew to a football head injury in 2008 and now serves as executive director of the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said 70 percent of the U.S. football-playing population is younger than 14, but the group is vastly understudied. He said the institute is conducting a long-running study of 9- to 12-year-olds, now in its third year, to track “the cumulative impact on the brain of head contact just across the season.”
On Thursday, the NCAA and Pentagon will launch a $30 million clinical study of concussion and head impact exposure among college students. The NFL will pledge $25 million over the next three years to support youth sports safety.
Obama has weighed in on the topic in very personal terms. He said in a 2013 interview with the New Republic that if he had a son, he would “have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that 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.”
A year later, he compared the sport to boxing, telling the the New Yorker, “I would not let my son play pro football.”
Obama’s former personal aide Reggie Love is a onetime forward for the Duke Blue Devils basketball team who often talked sports with the president. Love said in an interview that concussions “would end up being [the] topic of conversation” between them because they affect so many players.
“For him to have that dialogue puts a lot more information in front of parents and players and coaches on how they’re defining safety,” Love said. “Because he doesn’t have a financial benefit from it, it makes it easier for him to be a voice in that world.”
Hanes’s interest in the topic and her gel-helmet proposal earned her two visits to the White House this week — the first on Tuesday for an administration-sponsored science fair. Hanes sported pigskin-inspired high-heeled sandals and a rhinestone-encrusted whistle necklace for the occasion.
She and her mother, Mary, said the connection between concussions and contact sports is troubling. Hanes’s brother had trouble seeing for six months after his fourth injury.
“It’s frightening,” Mary Hanes said. When it comes to football, she added: “He’s done. Done.”