Subcommittee Examines Efforts to Improve Sports Safety

March 13, 2014

WASHINGTON, DC – The Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, chaired by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), today held a hearing on “Improving Sports Safety: A Multifaceted Approach.” The subcommittee examined ongoing efforts to prevent and mitigate the occurrence of concussions in sports, including game rule changes, coaching and player education, guidelines, as well as developing brain injury research and equipment research and development.

“Every day, parents make choices about whether or not to let their daughter play soccer or what kind of mouthpiece to buy their son for his first day of Pop Warner football. Unfortunately, it seems like every day, we hear about how participation in certain sports can be dangerous,” said Chairman Terry. “We want to better understand the innovations being made by sports leagues, equipment manufacturers and the medical community to make all sports safer.”

William Daly, Deputy Commissioner of the National Hockey League, noted the proactive steps the NHL is taking to improve safety and prevent and reduce concussions among players. The NHL, in collaboration with the National Hockey League Players’ Association, established the joint Concussion Committee in 1997, which initiated a baseline concussion testing program that is used to asses players’ cognitive responses before a season. “While there is not yet a clear understanding of many of the scientific and medical aspects of concussion, the NHL/NHLPA Concussion Program has certainly contributed to the scientific understanding of concussion in sports and we have been leaders in this regard,” said Daly.

Jeffrey Miller, Senior Vice President for Health and Safety Policy at the National Football League, explained how “rule changes” are reducing safety risks. Miller stated, “In recent years, the playing rules continue to be modified in an effort to reduce contact to the head and neck. One very specific example of how this effort has made the game safer is the decision to move the kickoff line forward five yards. … According to our most recent injury data, these changes are making an impact. Concussions are down 13 percent and concussions from helmet to helmet hits are down 23 percent between 2012 and 2013. We believe this is a result of rules changes, a culture change, the enforcement of the rules and our focus on limiting the use of the head in our game.”

Executive Director of USA Hockey David Ogrean and Executive Director of USA Football Scott Hallenbeck both described how education efforts are helping to raise awareness and improve young players’ safety. Hockey’s “Heads Up, Don’t Duck” and football’s “Heads Up” are education programs designed to make youth sports safer. “We agree with medical experts who state that education delivers behavior change to advance the safety of our young athletes,” said Hallenbeck.

Briana Scurry, Olympic gold medal winner and former goalkeeper for the United States women’s national soccer team, provided a face and voice to those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her testimony highlighted the alarming prevalence of concussions among athletes. “[A] recent article published in November stated that 1 of 2 female youth soccer players will suffer a concussion while playing. I feel the numbers of reported cases are likely understated and didn't designate those who’ve suffered multiple concussions. Statistics like these have solidified my urgency of purpose to shed light on the high frequency of concussions in youth and the devastating emotional toll that prolonged symptoms often cause yet are too frequently dismissed.”

Dr. Dennis Molfese, Director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, explained the challenges in correctly diagnosing concussions. “The major barrier to effective diagnosis in cases of suspected mild TBI is the heavy reliance on injured individuals to accurately report symptoms. In the absence of objective measures, this long-used approach is fatally flawed.” said Molfese.

Dr. Timothy Gay, Professor of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics University of Nebraska, added, “Our understanding of the medical issues related to concussion must be dramatically improved.” He described his research regarding how protective equipment works and how it can be improved, and said that improving helmet safety was a “tricky business.” “It is apparent that adding more energy-absorbing foam to a helmet will lower the maximum forces delivered to a player’s skull, and thus reduce the risk of a concussion,” said Gay. “The problem is that whenever padding is retrofitted to the outside of a helmet, its diameter increases, and the torque that can be applied by a glancing blow is subsequently increased. This dramatically increases the risk of neck injuries.” He urged increased use of equipment analytic systems, like the Star rating system and the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS), which help improve helmet and injury assessment.

Chairman Terry concluded, “We need to consider a multi-pronged approach aimed at keeping our kids safer while still promoting youth participation in sports. This involves listening to how leaders like the NFL, NHL, youth leagues and top-tier University researchers are partnering to make progress towards making sports safer.”