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NFL Health and Safety Update

November 23, 2012
Richmond High School

Tough Questions About Concussions

On November 11, three quarterbacks – ALEX SMITH of the San Francisco 49ers; JAY CUTLER of the Chicago Bears and MICHAEL VICK of the Philadelphia Eagles – suffered concussions and were removed from their respective games. These injuries to high-profile players on the same day generated an important conversation, as well as tough - but fair - questions for the league.


Asked why Smith and Cutler were allowed to return to the games after being hit, DR. RICHARD ELLENBOGEN, Co-Chair, NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee responded to media inquiries that team medical professionals make decisions based on the symptoms the player demonstrates. Some people show immediate signs of injury but others do not.


Dr. Ellenbogen emphasized that the medical response to the injuries was positive—all three players were removed as soon as they showed signs or symptoms of a concussion.


Smith, Cutler and Vick did not receive medical clearance from doctors to participate in their teams’ Week 11 games. Their respective returns to activity, from practice to game play, will continue to be decided by medical professionals in accord with the NFL’s return to play protocol.


For more, read Dr. Ellenbogen’s interview with USA Today. .


Team Health & Safety Events: Military

In recent weeks, the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns collaborated with the Army to host events on concussion/traumatic brain injury (TBI) at their stadiums. The events, which incorporated members of the military, team medical staff and former players, are part of a recently announced joint health and wellness initiative with the Army. The NFL and Army are working together to promote culture change in both organizations regarding the identification and treatment of head injuries.


Prior to Week 10’s Sunday night game at Soldier Field, Bears personnel – President and CEO TED PHILLIPS; head injury consultant, ELIZABETH M. PIEROTH, PSYD, ABPP, North Shore University HealthSystem; and former Bears players GARY FENCIK and OTIS WILSON – hosted a panel discussion with LTG MICHAEL FERRITER of Fort Benning in Georgia and COL ANDREA CRUNKHORN, the Director of the Rehabilitation and Reintegration Division at the Office of the Surgeon General. Bears chairman GEORGE H. MC CASKEY also attended the event.


The group, speaking before 30 National Guard soldiers, candidly addressed concussions and their effects, misconceptions about brain injury and each organization’s overall outlook on injuries.


Wilson, who the Bears selected with their first pick (No. 19 overall) of the 1980 NFL Draft, encouraged players to individually seek medical attention and to help others get the treatment they need.


“We as a group have to let players know that it’s OK if something’s wrong with you: stand on the sideline and get yourself some help,” said Wilson, a significant contributor during the team’s Super Bowl XX championship season. “We have to keep talking to one another.”


Phillips agreed communication on all levels is essential to advancing research and adjusting players’ and military members’ mindsets. He noted, while it will take time to achieve this goal, these structured events driven by the league and its clubs are impactful.


“We want to talk people through everything the league is doing in this type of forum,” stated Phillips, the  fourth president in club history. “It’s going to take years to really get the culture change we’re looking for.”


During the Browns event, participants discussed cultural similarities related to injury, particularly responses to brain injury, and the need to modify these cultures and reactions when it is suspected someone sustains a head injury.


Cleveland Clinic and Browns team physician DR. THOMAS WATERS joined former running back GREG PRUITT and linebackers ANTWAN PEEK (2007) and FRANK STAMS (1992-1995) in representing the team, while DR. JEREMY KAUFMAN, COLONEL ROBERT JOHNSON and MASTER SARGEANT KEVIN COLWELL spoke on behalf of the Ohio Army National Guard. 


“One of the biggest problems we had in Afghanistan was keeping the soldiers on the forward operating base and not allowing them to go back out in the field because they didn’t want to let their buddies down,” said Johnson, the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat team’s brigade surgeon. “I think that’s true in the NFL, too.”


All parties agreed on the importance of education and open dialogue between athletes at all levels of competition and past, present and future members of our nation’s armed forces.


Team Health & Safety Events: Youth

The San Diego Chargers held a health and safety forum for more than 85 youth football coaches and parents on Saturday, November 10. The event featured doctors addressing pediatric concussion treatment, a helmet fit demonstration and a discussion of USA Football “Heads Up Tackling” program.


Coaches and parents in attendance heard from the following experts: DR. ALEXANDER KHALESSI, Surgical Director of NeuroCritical Care, University of California - San Diego; DR. ANGELA LUMBA, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, St. Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University; DR. JAMES YOUN, Primary Care Sports Medicine, Kaiser Permanente; and RICK REGALADO, USA Football Heads Up Football Player Safety Coach.


PHIL LOMAX, the Conference Commissioner of San Diego American Youth Football & Cheer (AYF), attended the function and commented on the need for educational opportunities pertaining to player health and safety and the desire for such information by his colleagues, coaches and parents.


“The parents who are involved are encouraged that we have taken such an interest in learning more about concussions, how they happen, how to prevent them from reoccurring and how to protect the players from coming back too early,” said Lomax, who has worked with AYF for the past 10 years. “It helps us to know that the NFL is behind this idea.  If I brought the same medical professionals in to talk to my coaches, it would not have had the same value to those coaches as it has when they are sitting in the Chargers’ facility getting the same message.” 


Lomax, whose group encompasses more than 6,000 youth participants, including cheerleaders, and 1,700 volunteers, said the organization implements all of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s information on concussion awareness, as well as USA  Football’s “Heads Up Football” program. He stated that heads-up techniques have not only improved player health and safety but also the quality of play.


“Going back and teaching kids to tackle the right way is going to make them better football players and safer football players. Being a heads-up football player, not just in tackling but in blocking, running the ball and everything else you do, makes the game safer for everyone and it is a more effective way of playing football. It has improved the quality of the football game because kids are learning how to tackle. Heads-up tackling is a better way of tackling.”


For more information on the NFL’s health and safety work, please visit www.nflevolution.com.

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