That lawsuit was settled last year -- with much of the money used to start the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut -- and the widow of the Minnesota Vikings lineman applauds the league's response over the last several months to another threat to players' health: head injuries.
"I think they're tuned in," Kelci Stringer told FanHouse during a break at the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) Youth Sports Safety Alliance Summit on Capitol Hill Tuesday. "I give (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell a lot of credit. He gets it. There's a higher level of concern there. Of course, there are going to be people who disagree with me, but his heart is in the right place."
After first denying a link between multiple concussions and debilitating neurological disorders, the NFL has reversed course. The league has taken initial steps to fund research into the long-term impact of concussions and has come down hard this season on hits to the head, fining several players for the dangerous hits. And on Tuesday, NATA and the NFL announced they'd team up to lobby state and federal legislatures to pass laws that set a minimum standard before young athletes are allowed to return to action after a concussion.
"The commissioner said it's a culture change in regards to concussions," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's vice president of government relations and public policy. "Part of that culture change is to evolve from the professional ranks down to other levels of sports, too. It's important parents, teachers and coaches as well as young athletes understand there are risks associated with concussions and how to manage them."
New Jersey became the ninth state to enact such a law after Gov. Chris Christie signed a new bill on Tuesday. Such legislation comes none too soon for those who study concussions in young athletes.
According to the most recent numbers compiled by researchers, the incidence of concussion in high school athletics rose about 10 percent in 2009-10 compared to the previous school year. (Researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Virginia, Ohio State and Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, extrapolated the info from 100 randomly sampled schools.) Football players (7.2 concussions per 10,000 participants) were the most likely to suffer a brain injury; lacrosse (3.1 concussions per 10,000 participants) was the sport most responsible for concussions in female athletes.
Dawn Comstock, one of the study's researchers, said concussions are often under-reported by athletes and rates could be as much as twice as high. A paper that she contributed to set to be published in the Journal of Athletic Training next month delves into why females are more likely to be diagnosed with a concussion in the same sport than their male counterparts.
It's the kind of research that has garnered more attention as professional leagues and the media put the spotlight on head injuries, although Comstock said more could be done.
"The NFL has helped with the educational efforts," said Comstock, a professor at Ohio State. "They have partnered with (the Centers for Disease Control) and other groups. I give them full kudos and those prevention efforts can trickle down. One thing where they haven't taken as much leadership role as they could have is funding some of this research."
This summit, however, wasn't solely focused on concussions. Some other disturbing trends discussed included:
• The rates of heat-related deaths are on the rise. There were 18 heat stroke related deaths from 2005-2009 -- a nearly twofold increase compared to the previous five-year period – linked to sports in the U.S., according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury at the University of North Carolina.
• Kids Endangered Now, a foundation started by Mark and Linette Derminer after their son died of cardiac arrest during high school football practice a decade ago, has recorded 250 sudden cardiac deaths already this year among athletes of all ages.
• Sickle cell trait, a condition that has killed nine athletes over the last six and a half years, remains under-diagnosed.
• NATA reports 48 athletes high school-aged and younger have died this year.
Overall, NATA gave the nation a "C+" for its response to its last summit held in January. Speaking in the caucus room at one of the Congressional office buildings, NATA president Marjorie Albohm said there's one way to raise that grade: national legislation to protect young athletes.
"I hope it'd be one of those bipartisan issues," Albohm said. "We're talking about the health and safety of sons and daughters. Regardless of what side you sit on (politically), there has to be some consensus on this."
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