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Tom Rooney: Head games – The push to protect football players from brain injury

Early this football season, while I was watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play the St. Louis Rams, I saw something happen during the game that I have never seen before. The Rams’ running back, Tre Mason, broke out for a seven-yard run and our defensive back, Antwon Blake, went to tackle him. Mason attempted to leap over Blake, and Blake wound up taking a knee to the helmet. I wouldn’t exactly call it a cringe-worthy hit. But what happened next was remarkable.

The game was stopped. An independent medical observer, who viewed the hit from a booth, called a medical timeout and officials escorted Blake to the sidelines. After a brief trip to the locker room, Blake was ultimately cleared as symptom-free and re-entered the game. That was the first time a medical timeout had been called in a National Football League game.

I played football growing up, starting in high school and into college. During that time, I suffered a concussion during a game. I was told I just got my “bell rung” and I kept playing. Fast forward to today, and the oldest of my three sons is 13, and he just started playing full-pad contact football this season. Wanting to protect him as long as I could, I tried to persuade my son to play flag football until high school. He insisted on playing contact football, we had a huge fight, and, as usual, I lost.

I want my son to have the same experiences that I had, and I know it’s impossible to eliminate all the risks of playing sports, contact or noncontact. Still, although we cannot banish risk completely, we can ensure that helmets and other equipment, as well as medical assessment protocols, meet the highest safety standards for our kids as well as for professional athletes in the NFL.

The NFL has a huge responsibility to lead by example — my kids look up to those guys. Most college and high school football teams follow the standards the NFL sets for handling injuries, and if our children see more professional players being taken out of the game after potential head injuries, it will go a long way in mitigating the risks of a young player trying to act like everything is OK. Changing this mindset is a huge part of educating players of all ages about the dangers of injury and teaching them that they don’t have to try to play through it.

As a co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force in the U.S. House of Representatives, I advocate for more research around medicine and technology that will increase knowledge around head injuries and improve prevention and treatment efforts. Sports leagues, government, military and the private sector are actively partnering to support and share the results of medical and technological research, so that all who suffer brain injury can benefit. The NFL has made a $30 million unrestricted grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health to advance basic medical research on brain injuries, focusing on athletes and veterans. In addition, the league, along with General Electric and Under Armour, launched the Head Health Initiative, a four-year, $60 million collaboration to accelerate diagnosis and improve treatment for traumatic brain injury.

On the field, investments in new technology are allowing better baseline testing and sideline evaluation. At every NFL game, there is a staff of 27 medical professionals on the field, including an unaffiliated neurological consultant who must independently approve any return-to-play decision. Moreover, the league has also instituted nearly 40 rule changes in the last 10 years to eliminate dangerous plays and to reduce the risk of injuries and reduce head impact — from moving the kickoff line to requiring a player who shows concussion symptoms to be removed from the game.

With these important changes — as well as improved equipment and better training — the NFL reports that there has been a 34 percent decrease in concussions in regular season games since the 2012 season and a 37 percent decrease in concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits. Plus, new to this season, independent certified athletic trainers have the authority to call a medical timeout to ensure all potential injuries are assessed and treated immediately, which is what we saw being used for the first time this season during the Steelers-Rams game. And while we’ve seen the benefits of these changes throughout the season, the recent incident with Rams’ quarterback Case Keenum demonstrates there’s still more to do to ensure safety protocols have the greatest impact and are executed as intended.

Beyond changes to the game, education is a critical tool for prevention, particularly for young athletes. The reality is that most football leagues and teams, especially youth leagues, do not have near the amount of resources the NFL has to incorporate and adopt new safety protocols. Professional sports leagues have made progress in setting the standard for the safest techniques and training guidelines at all levels of the sport, from the youth to college ranks. Through programs like the NFL and USA Football’s Heads Up Football, coaches are trained and certified, and players and parents are educated on safer tackling and blocking techniques, appropriate contact practice schedules, proper equipment fitting and how to recognize and treat concussions. The NFL, meanwhile, is also helping put athletic trainers in underserved high schools and to fund equipment and helmet replacement in underserved communities.

We are making progress toward the goal of better information and the publication of accurate information — on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries and concussions. And the more people who are paying attention to this issue, the better off the sport will be. Football is the greatest game ever played, and it needs to evolve at every stage so my three sons will be able to play on a safer field than the one I competed on.

Ultimately, the NFL has no choice but to address this issue. Not just because of liability issues, but because without changes, we will continue to endanger the health of all those who play the game and risk losing football altogether.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney has served in the House of Representatives since 2008. He is co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, a bipartisan group that advocates for increased brain injury awareness, research and prevention efforts. Rooney is also the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers Founder Art Rooney. While Rooney’s extended family still owns the organization, Rooney is not personally a shareholder in the Steelers. He and his wife, Tara, have three school-age boys who all play sports. The views expressed are his own.

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