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Obama’s concussion summit: Sucking it up

President Obama applauded Victoria Bellucci, a 2014 high school graduate who has had five concussions, at the summit.EPA

The single most important thing President Obama said at his well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffectual summit on the concussion danger in sports last week was, “We have to change a culture that says you suck it up” — that is, absorb the blows and get back into the game as quickly as possible. The question, of course, is how to change that culture. No other nation embeds competitive sports into school life and professional sports into civic life as fully as the United States.

Many states, including Massachusetts, now have laws that establish protocols for identifying concussions in youth athletes. But the solution is not as simple as more awareness, or the NCAA showing up at the summit to say it is teaming with the Pentagon on a $30 million study on head injuries, or the NFL spending $25 million to promote safety in youth sports. These feel like PR tactics to hide all the foot-dragging over rule changes that would actually reduce head injuries. So far, no major contact sport has revised its rules significantly enough to limit such blows. Hits to the head still occur far too frequently in football, wall-slamming and fist-fighting are staples of professional hockey, and heading remains a sacred aspect of top-level soccer.


At the summit, Obama highlighted a hockey family from Maryland whose two boys had concussions at the ages of seven and eight, resulting in headaches that made them struggle in school and act out. With good medical care, they eventually recovered and last winter one boy helped his high school team win a state championship. Obama said the parents could have pulled the boys from hockey, but instead educated themselves on concussions and encouraged them to “lace up those skates and get out on the ice.”

It is good for the president to add his voice to those concerned about head injuries. But young people still lace up for sports where the culture and risks of being hit in the head have barely changed. That means we are still telling them to suck it up.