It was a day when everyone acknowledged the 10-ton elephant in the room – and the elephant was violence and injuries in sports.
One could probably not find a more experienced and qualified group of people to discuss the culture of sports violence that leads to traumatic injury than the panelists who assembled for the Gladiators in the 21st Century conference at Thomas Jefferson School of Law on
Saturday, November 10.
Doctors, researchers, attorneys, professors and the athletes themselves were there to tackle the issue.
All agreed on the need to protect athletes, from children to adults, from the dangers of the “win at all costs” mentality that leads to serious injuries that can last a lifetime.
Some scary numbers were discussed, especially about concussions suffered by high school athletes. Dr. Jacob Resch, director of the Brain Injury Laboratory at the University of Texas, Arlington, told the audience that “56-percent of high school concussions go unreported.” Dr. Resch called for “objective, reliable and valid tests” for athletes who may have suffered concussions. And he feels that licensed athletic trainers should be on the sidelines for all high school football games.
“All NFL players have had their bell rung thousands of times,” said Dr. Kristen Willeumier, the research director at Amen Clinics, which is conducting a study of NFL players, both active and retired, to assess the damage that so many hits have done to their brains. “The NFL puts players at risk for brain injury.”
Dr. Willeumier showed images of brain scans done at her clinic of former players that were stunning to see – many brains looked like Swiss cheese or the surface of the moon from all of the head trauma suffered over the years. Fortunately, preliminary research at Amen Clinics shows the brain has the potential to improve with a comprehensive rehabilitation program, involving a regimen of diet, supplements, exercise and other methods. The “after” treatment brain scans Dr. Willeumier showed appeared dramatically better than the “before” treatment scans.
Dr. David Reiss, a San Diego based psychiatrist who is qualified as an expert witness in the current litigation against the NFL over player concussions, wants to see a change in the mentality where players “are encouraged to tolerate pain for the good of the team,” where coaches, parents and teammates urge them to “get back on the field,” though they may still be in a daze from a head injury.
“The NFL has mythologized the concept of the player as a Gladiator,” said panelist Jeffrey Levine a sports management professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law. “The NFL should get out in front of this issue. The NFL is a major influencer. NFL policy has a trickle-down effect on all levels of football.”
And Levine said the master complaint in the former player’s suit against the NFL states that the league knew as early as the 1920’s of the risks to players from concussions – and that the league concealed the more recent results of its own investigation of the risks of head injuries to players.
Professor Jordan Kobritz of SUNY Cortland, who heads the Sports Management Department, suggested potentially bringing criminal charges in NFL concussion cases, noting that 42 states have concussion legislation in place, yet there are no consequences or penalties in effect.
“We don’t equate a hit on a wide-receiver with a mugging in the park,” said Kobritz. “But the consequences may be more serious and they may last forever. “
The conference’s keynote speaker was legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who made his second appearance at the law school within several weeks. “I’m getting very close to Thomas Jefferson,” said Steinberg. “It’s a great example to see Thomas Jefferson out in front on this issue. It’s what a law school should be doing.”
TJSL Dean Rudy Hasl presented Steinberg with the first Rudy Hasl Leader in Sports Award, on behalf of the Center for Sports Law and Policy.
And indeed, Steinberg has been a leader and leading voice in making the NFL to take notice and action on the issue of player concussions.
“I asked myself what is my fiduciary duty to my clients beyond just being their lawyer and agent – but their friend as well,” Steinberg told the conference attendees.
Steinberg called for a proper standard regimen of recognition and treatment of concussions for athletes at all levels of sports, including having neurologists on the sidelines at every game.
“I once asked one of my clients (Hall of Fame NFL quarterback) Steve Young how many concussions he had suffered. To which Young replied – ‘Official ones?’” He went on to tell Steinberg that an “official one is when you get carted off the field.”
“Dozens and dozens of concussions are happening and not being diagnosed,” Steinberg said. “I call it a ticking time-bomb. We ain’t seen nothing yet. A tidal wave is coming from every level of sport.”
Steinberg called for baseline testing of athletes at all levels, as is done by Dr. Willeumier. When they get their bell rung, “athletes should be asymptomatic before they go back into the game,” he said.
As for the long-term effects, Steinberg was stunned to see NFL Hall of Famers when he was at an induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. “Here are the best players in the history of the game and they can hardly move.”
“This is a critical problem,” Steinberg said. “We need to treat it with openness, and as an emergency priority.” He received a standing ovation after his powerful presentation.
“We all love sports, but at what cost?” asked Professor Matthew Mitten, Director of the Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. He said there are an estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions in the U.S. each year and that at least 50 high school-age or younger football players have died or suffered serious head injuries since 1997.
“There must be reasonable care by all parties to reduce, minimize, and prevent concussions and their effects,” said Professor Mitten. And that includes the athletes themselves, “who must temper their intensity and aggression.”
“Are young kids becoming gladiators?” asked Distinguished Professor Rod Smith, who organized the Gladiators Conference and is the director of TJSL’s Center for Sports Law and Policy. “Concussions suffered by young athletes with a developing brain are of grave medical concern.” And Professor Smith pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that sports concussions in the U.S. have reached “epidemic levels.”
“Athletics for young people is a high-risk activity and we are clearly losing the battle between the health and well-being of young players and the prevailing athletic cultural values of winning at any cost, playing through injuries and taking one for the team,” said Professor Smith.
And Professor Smith offered this solution to what he believes is a societal and cultural issue: “The prevailing athletic culture is a result of ignorance and exaggeration. We need to educate. We must develop strong disclosure rules and increase media attention that will bring the facts to parents, educators and even fans.”
During the athlete’s panel, former San Diego Chargers star linebacker Billy Ray Smith told the audience that years ago, “a helmet was just a helmet,” but after all the design changes over the years, “a helmet is now being used as a weapon of mass destruction.“ Smith believes there has been “an incredible increase in concussions in the league.”
Also, Smith said that it’s difficult to get NFL players to change their style of play, but as for young players, “we need to teach the coaches to teach the kids a different way to play.”
Professional Wrestler Adam “Scrap Iron” Pearce said he and his colleagues don’t set out to injure each other. In fact, they try to protect each other. But he says there are still injuries.
“I don’t know how many concussions I’ve had and that’s scary,” Pearce said. He says there is a “don’t work, don’t eat” ethic among wrestlers who often get back in the ring despite their injuries. “There’s a very real issue here,” Pearce said. “Today I’ve gotten a lot of information to take back to my brotherhood and I’m going to say, let’s fix this.”
“The player’s well-being is our primary concern,” said Mike West, who the president of the California Athletic Trainers Association (CATA). “The return to play decision is an inherent conflict of interest for coaches,” West said. “But athletic trainers can make an objective decision.
And our goal is to have athletic trainers in every high school.”
CATA has 2,200 licensed athletic trainers as member across California. “We try to work with and educate coaches,” West said. “Also, there must be some kind of training for coaches of the signs and symptoms of concussion.” But he pointed out that it’s often much more difficult to educate the parents. “We need to change some of the parent’s attitudes before their kids get to high school, college or even the NFL.
There should be mandatory education for parents whose kids go into sports.”
Sadly, some parents get caught up in the dreams they have for their children.
An example of a common attitude among parents was reflected in a conversation Dr. Resch once had as he explained to a mother an injury her son had suffered and why he shouldn’t go back into the game. “This woman looked me in the eye and said ‘my baby is going to the NFL.’”
Dr. Dwight Zach Smith, a psychiatrist from Massachusetts and an expert on steroids led off the conference with a presentation on the effects of “juicing” on athletes. One of his most important points was that steroid use may lead to greater performance, but it doesn’t lead to increased athletic skill.
Dr. Smith also spoke of the known long-term medical damage, as well as anecdotal evidence that steroids can possible lead to aggression, so called “roid-rage.” The jury is still out on that issue.
For those who attended the Gladiators in the 21st Century Conference, it was a dramatic and riveting revelation about the cultural change needed to protect our athletes at all levels from the results of devastating injuries, which can not only last a lifetime, but shorten their lives as well.
No longer could anyone who was there continue to ignore the elephant in the room.
“Congratulations to Rod Smith for his work in putting together a terrific program on Gladiators in the 21st Century,” said TJSL Dean Rudy Hasl. “The presentations were top-notch and quite informative. The keynote by Leigh Steinberg was mesmerizing and forceful. We were able to get some good press on the event and the audience of about 90 had a fine introduction to the facilities of the school. Thanks to the Center students, faculty, and staff for making this a memorable event. This program was made possible by an anonymous donor.”