The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a two-hour hearing on sports concussions on Wednesday. You can view the video at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/Concuss.
Despite an annoyingly oily good-old-boy performance by the chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the hearing had valuable moments. When we set aside the football element of the debate, the promotion of “concussion awareness” through such forums is immensely educational for participants in minor sports, and especially for female athletes.
In my opinion, the most penetrating interlude was almost an aside: an exchange between Senator John Thune of South Dakota and one of the witness panelists, Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, the director of Michigan NeuroSports, about the appropriate ages at which athletes can begin engaging in violent contact.
The star of the hearing, of course, was Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has spearheaded the investigations by executive agencies of the Riddell football helmet company. In two important ways, Udall seriously disappointed.
First, and as expected, Udall directed a lot of outrage against the spurious claims of Riddell and other “Concussion Inc.” marketers – while saying nothing about how the National Football League and its operatives were in bed with many of those same companies. With respect to Riddell, Udall noted that a doctor involved in the now-infamous 2006 Neurosurgery journal study of Riddell’s Revolution helmet had distanced himself from the way Riddell went on to quote the article in its commercials and promotions. But Udall couldn’t spit out the name of this doctor: Joseph Maroon of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, World Wrestling Entertainment, and various worthless iterations of the NFL’s concussion policy committees.
Though Dr. Kutcher’s purpose was not to attack Maroon, Kutcher made statements which underscored a point completely glossed over by Udall: The problem isn’t just how Riddell exploited the Maroon/UPMC/NFL-funded study of the Riddell Revolution. The problem is that the study itself was shoddily designed and scientifically unsound. In January, Maroon told The New York Times that the company’s promos should have been more careful about his study’s “limitations.” Limitations, my foot – as Kutcher told the Commerce Committee, the Neurosurgery article had lousy controls in the first place, and proceeded to play fast and loose with claims of percentages of reductions in the incidence of concussions among those who used the helmet.
Udall should haul Maroon before the Commerce Committee for a defense of his work, not just a second-hand and unnamed renunciation of the supposed bad faith exhibited by a patron and exploiter of his work. Maroon also needs to explain why, if Riddell’s promos were so heinous, he never complained about them over a period of years, until The Times and Udall came along to ask questions about them.
Also at the hearing, Udall ripped the marketer of the supplement Sports Brain Guard – but conveniently without mentioning that Maroon is a prominent endorser of that product, too.
My other dissent about Udall at Wednesday’s hearing concerned his citation of the suicide of Dave Duerson, the donation of Duerson’s brain to chronic traumatic encephalopathy research, and the finding that Duerson had CTE. Udall said Duerson wanted to help others in the future, which is standard superficial commentary. But the senator went over the line when he went on to mention that Duerson had testified before the very same Commerce Committee in 2007.
Well, indeed he had, but Udall’s suggestion that Duerson had the same intent in that appearance is shockingly misleading. As the senator well knows, the Duerson of the ’07 testimony, in his role as a National Football League Players Association-appointed trustee of the NFL’s retirement and disability plan, had emphatically downplayed mounting evidence of long-term traumatic brain injury.