Congress to Launch New Concussion Probe

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will tackle the hot-button issue, but will the NFL get involved?

Image scans of the brain of football legend Joe Namath are projected during a press conference in 2014 in New York after the announcement of the creation of the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida. The center focuses on research to "combat the debilitating effects of traumatic brain injuries," according to a press release.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Dec. 22, 2015, 4:18 p.m.

Amid a national debate about concussions in sports leagues and the military, a House Committee is entering the fray with what is promised to be a comprehensive review of head injuries.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton announced Tuesday that three of his subcommittees will partner on the review of head injuries in 2016. The review is intended to bring in partners from the medical community, the military, athletes, and other stakeholders to provide a broad overview of concussions.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know about head trauma—how it affects different subsets of the population, the short- and long-term effects, and other details critical to developing effective diagnostics and treatments,” Upton said. “Our goal is to bring together experts from across the medical spectrum to increase collaboration, have a thoughtful dialogue, and move the conversation forward.”

While Upton promised that the review will focus on the problem “well beyond the battlefield and the gridiron,” the project is sure to attract headlines because of its implications for the National Football League. The NFL is under increasing scrutiny for its treatment of concussions, with current and retired players charging that the league has not done enough to protect its players from the long-term effects of head injuries (the debate will hit movie theaters this week with the release of Concussion, starring Will Smith). The league settled a lawsuit with former players over head injuries this spring that could cost upwards of $900 million.

ESPN reported Tuesday that the NFL had pulled funding from a massive Boston University study examining the link between football and head injuries, which will instead be funded by the National Institutes of Health.

A committee release mentions input from “professional and collegiate sports,” although it does not mention any specific names and a committee aide said that they were not ready to identify who would be involved. The NFL did not return a request for comment.

The NFL has been trying to raise its profile on Capitol Hill amid the scrutiny—Commissioner Roger Goodell made the rounds in July to discuss the league’s safety initiatives. Cynthia Hogan, the league’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, said the visit was meant to show “that while Con­gress is fo­cused on many is­sues, they can know that we are on our stuff.”

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NIH found that traumatic brain injuries accounted for 2.5 million emergency-room visits in 2010 alone, but cautioned that the number was low because it did not include untreated injuries. The report laid out several areas for future study, including evidence-based guidelines for future head-injury treatment, better understanding of the long-term implications, and more study on the prevention of brain injuries.

Among the study’s findings were that the U.S. military had treated 235,046 service members for head injuries between 2000 and 2011.

It’s not the first time Congress has waded into the implications of head injuries. The Energy and Commerce panel has held several hearings focused on concussions in sports, including one in March 2014. That same year, the White House convened a summit on children’s sports, where the NFL made a $25 million pledge to support youth-sports safety and the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a $30 million concussion study with the Department of Defense.

The Energy and Commerce review will be handled by three subcommittees: Oversight and Investigations; Health; and Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade.

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