Memo to Waxman, Udall, Blumenthal: An Agenda for Hearings on the National Concussion Crisis

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This week brings welcome news that Congressmen Henry Waxman (California) and G.K. Butterfield (North Carolina) have asked the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to hold hearings on football helmet safety.

This reinforces the investigation begun by the Federal Trade Commission of the promotional claims of Riddell helmets, the official supplier of the National Football League, which funded the research underpinning those claims. The research was co-authored by Dr. Joseph Maroon, team neurologist for the Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL concussion consultant, medical director for World Wrestling Entertainment, and wide-ranging commercial product owner and shill. The FTC took up the probe on referral from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico.

The plot on Capitol Hill has definitely thickened.

My analysis begins on a familiar pungent note: Calls for hearings by the minority party are a dime a dozen. Waxman was formerly the chair of the House Commerce Committee, but with the Republican gains in last November’s elections, he is now just the ranking minority member. Whether the Republican leadership will give the Waxman-Butterfield request the time of day remains to be seen.

Democrats do still hold a majority in the Senate. So perhaps the most effective step, if the Republicans at House Commerce rebuff Waxman and Butterfield, would be for Udall to initiate hearings there. That’s my first big observation.

My second is that the questions raised by helmet hearings must be broad enough to serve as a public-education platform for the global problem of concussions in contact sports. I don’t want to watch the CEO’s of Riddell and other helmet manufacturers squirm under questioning over the percentage drop in concussions promised by their products. No one is going to jail over a relatively minor bit of hype, and no one should. The real public-health issue is this:

Where is the federal government on the national concussion crisis? The National Football League, with its $9 billion in annual revenue, has paid an appallingly small share of the bill for the millions of sports concussions sustained annually at all levels – many of them traceable to NFL commerce and its giant footprint on our culture. This is not a problem that can be entrusted to the tender mercies of the league, its oily doctors, their bought-and-paid-for clinical research, and the ingenuity of a few independent entrepreneurs seeking to design a better football helmet.

My third observation takes me to the agenda I’ve been pushing ever since Chris Benoit, a WWE star, murdered his wife and their 7-year-old son, and killed himself, then was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Concussions in sports are mixed up in the whole cocktail of steroid and painkiller abuse, as well as the whole subject of regulation of the profitable and influential (though, obviously, not NFL-size) pro wrestling industry.

Wrestling must not get swept back under the rug in these investigations just because it’s considered more icky than football. Waxman himself, then as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, supervised an excellent investigation in 2007 of WWE’s leaky “wellness program,” but the probe went nowhere – just transcripts of staff interviews of company executives and contractors, no public hearings, and a critical letter report by Waxman that landed in the slush pile of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. As I have pointed out, some of the WWE testimony on its knowledge of and measures to curtail industrial brain injuries was at least as questionable as baseball’s Miguel Tejada’s earlier dissemblings about his “Vitamin B-12” shots, which earned him a humiliating plea bargain.

And as my friend Don Hooton – director of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, a steroid-awareness group – points out, not even public hearings are always the answer. The Waxman Committee’s 2005 sessions, in which baseball steroid abuser Mark McGwire essentially took the Fifth Amendment, baseball steroid abuser Sammy Sosa did a me-no-speak-English shtick, and baseball steroid abuser Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger and denied, were the most-watched hearings in history.

“Yet what came out of that from the federal government? Nothing,” a disappointed Hooton notes. “Major League Baseball has stepped up to the plate and done a lot more in terms of its testing and its education outreach, but neither Congress nor the executive branch has contributed any significant follow-through.”

Which leads me to Observation No. 4: why I put Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut in the headline along with Waxman and Udall.

Freshman Democrat Blumenthal won his seat over Republican Linda McMahon, the $50 million “self-financed” ex-CEO of WWE. During the campaign, Blumenthal got help not only from Hooton but also from Mike Benoit, Chris’s father. In his first post-election press conference, Blumenthal vowed to take action on “steroids” when he was in Washington.

With the concussion crisis boiling over and the helmet investigation in the air, now is an opportunity for Senator Blumenthal to punch the ticket of his mandate. You can call it “steroids” or you can call it “concussions” or you can call it “pro wrestling regulation.” Just don’t wind up having me label it grandstanding or inaction.

MONDAY ON THIS BLOG: Take 2 on the controversy over leading concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu’s relationship with the Xenith helmet company.


Irv Muchnick

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