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
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
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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