Take Part in Sports, But Minimize the Risks, Sports Concussion Expert Says

Julian Bailes does not say that kids younger than 14 – or anyone else – shouldn’t take part in contact sports such as football.  But they should know the risks, follow the rules, and make sure they are involved with coaches and others who do the right things when it comes to the health of players.

Bailes is someone whose views are particularly worth attention. A former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has been a central figure in medical work that has brought to light the links between repeated hits to the head and long-term brain damage among football players.

During an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday at Marquette Law School, Bailes outlined the history of awareness of the toll that concussions and “sub-concussive” hits to the head can have, going back more than a century. But it has been in recent years that work by doctors, most notably  Bennet Omalu and Bailes, has established the high incidence among former professional football players of a form of brain damage known as CTE.

The deaths of prominent NFL stars such as Mike Webster and Junior Seau has brought extensive attention to the issue. A National Football League official recently agreed publicly for the first time that there is a link between blows to the head and CTE, and a federal appeals court this week upheld a legal settlement that is predicted to involve as much as $1 billion in payments in coming years to former NFL players who suffered concussions.

Bailes’ graphic presentation at the Eckstein Hall program showed what can happen to a brain when someone receives multiple hits (tens of thousands in total for some football players) to the head.

But Bailes, who is now chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., said the NFL has improved its rules and practices in ways that are reducing the frequency of concussions and other hits to the head. At all levels of football and other sports where blows to the head are common – hockey and soccer, to name two – the response when a player is hit is much better now than it used to be. Players are generally not allowed to return to participation until symptoms are gone, which can be days or weeks.

Bailes said that many activities in life carry risks and participants should understand them.  A lot more children die of injuries from skateboarding than from playing youth football, he said. Bailes has been medical director of Pop Warner, a nationwide youth football program, for seven years. He said one participant in Pop Warner has died in the last 30 years.

Bailes said that two of his three sons played football in their middle school years. As parents, “you have to weigh the pros and cons,” he said. There are many benefits to taking part in sports. He said he disagrees with Omalu, who has taken a stronger stand against children taking part in sports associated with hits to the head.

Omalu (played by Will Smith) was the central figure in the 2015 movie, “Concussion.” Bailes (played by Alec Baldwin) was a central figure in the movie also. Bailes said the movie is generally an accurate recounting of what he and Omalu found, based in large part on their work in the aftermath of the death of Webster. Webster, a University of Wisconsin graduate, was an NFL star as a center, but was homeless and suffered major mental problems before being found dead at age 50.

Marquette Law Professor Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute, described for the audience elements of the case that led to the settlement between the NFL and former players who had concussions. The appeals court action this week is a good thing because former players will start getting money to pay for help they need, Mitten said.

Mitten said all 50 states now have laws requiring education for coaches, players, and others involved in sports about concussions. The law generally mandate that a “concussion protocol” overseen by an expert be followed whenever a player sustains a head injury.

To view the hour-long program with Bailes and Mitten, click here.

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