Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Concussions and the Marketing of Sports Equipment

October 19, 2011

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—Every afternoon at the end of the school day, millions of our children head to playing fields, gymnasiums, or hockey rinks to participate in team sports.  Playing sports doesn’t just make our kids stronger and healthier.  It also teaches them important values.  They learn about hard work, about leadership, and about working together for a common goal.  Most of our young athletes will not end up playing sports at the collegiate or professional levels, but we hope they will all carry the positive lessons they learned on the playing fields into their adult lives.   

Our hearing today is about the head injuries that tens of thousands of these athletes sustain every year while playing the sports they love.  Many of us are reluctant to talk about the risks involved in playing sports because we know what a positive role sports play in our communities.  The last thing we would want to do is discourage young people from playing sports.   

In fact, more of our children should be playing sports.  Too many kids are spending their afternoons in front of computer and televisions screens, instead of on the sports field.  According to the latest data compiled by the Center for Disease Control, only 17% of American high school students get an hour of daily physical activity, which is what our current health guidelines say they need to stay healthy—only 17%.  One-third of our children are now overweight or obese, which makes it more likely that they will suffer from chronic health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.       

But the risks involved in playing sports are also real.  By now, we’ve all heard about the National Football League (NFL) players who are struggling with serious mental and physical health problems because they sustained repeated mild traumatic brain injuries—also known as “concussions”—during their playing careers.   

We now understand that this is not an injury only NFL players can suffer.  According to research conducted at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, more than 70,000 high school football players sustain concussions every year.  And it’s not just a football problem either.  One of our witnesses today, Alexis Ball, will talk about the concussions she suffered while playing soccer in high school and college.   According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, more than 10,000 high school girl soccer players sustain concussions each year.

What we are going to hear from Ms. Ball and our other witnesses today is that there is not one easy fix to the problem of concussions in youth sports.  Sports like football, hockey, or soccer will never be risk-free, but they can be made safer if coaches, trainers, players, and parents are willing to take an honest look at how their sports are played and make changes that will better protect their athletes.

Two of our witnesses today—Ms. Ball and Steven Threet, who was the starting quarterback for the Arizona State University football team—are college athletes who made the difficult decision to stop playing the sports they love after suffering multiple concussions.  I would like to thank both of them for being willing to share their stories with us today.       

What’s clear to me from their stories is that nothing is simple about this issue.  That’s why I find it so disturbing that some sports equipment manufacturers are exploiting our growing concerns about sports concussions to market so-called “anti-concussion” products to athletes and their parents.  As our experts are going to tell us today, any company that claims a particular piece of sports equipment will protect young athletes from concussions is making an empty, unsubstantiated promise.  While safety equipment like mouth guards and helmets have been proven to reduce the risk of certain sports injuries, there is little evidence at this point that they protect athletes from concussions.

Athletes and their parents have a lot of legitimate questions about the risk of concussions in sports.  They deserve honest answers to their questions and that’s what we are going to try to provide them in this hearing today.