Last week in Washington D.C., I was privileged to have been invited to attend and participate in the kickoff event for an innovative two-year initiative called PASS (Protecting Athletes and Sports Safety).
A joint project of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine and the Department of Global Health at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, PASS is the latest in a series of national programs designed to address and combat the incidence of catastrophic brain injuries among the more than twenty million youth who participate in organized sports annually.
The event co-host and keynote speaker was David Satcher M.D., Director of the eponymously named Satcher Health Leadership Institute, and the 16th Surgeon General of the United States.
Dr. Satcher has spent his life studying public health, and was known during his tenure as the Surgeon General from 1998-2002 for his willingness to listen to a wide cross section of Americans and respond with effective health programs.
So it was not surprising that, in launching PASS, Dr. Satcher invited thought leaders on youth sports safety, clinicians, researchers, educators, sporting goods manufacturers and the media to participate.
It was also not surprising that the first PASS conference focused on concussions, nor that in his keynote address he joined the chorus of those, like me, who have been calling for a change in a youth sports culture "in which the banging of heads is too often celebrated."
The conference was broken into five moderated panel discussions, each lasting about an hour and a half. After a welcoming reception on Thursday evening, the Friday festivities kicked off with a surprise during the question and answer session at a panel discussion entitled "Brain Development, Health and Wellness": Asked by youth sports journalist Mark Hyman, co-author, with Bob Cantu, MD, of the book, "Concussions and Our Kids," whether, given what they knew about concussions, the panelists - research scientists all - would allow their sons to play football, they all said they would.
While I found all the subsequent panel discussions worthwhile, and the questions and comments from the audience thought-provoking, (including a question from MomsTEAM's expert neuropsychologist, Rosemarie Scolaro Moser, PhD - that's her with me and Dr. Satcher - during the public policy panel about whether legislation was needed at the federal level to protect student athletes left unprotected by state law), it was the first panel after the lunch break on the role of the media as a primary tool in concussion prevention that I found particularly interesting.
Perhaps it was because, in my multi-faceted role as a member of the media, author, documentary film maker, educator and safety advocate reporting on, and blogging and speaking about youth sports safety issues, especially concussions, I know the important, yet often overlooked, role non-traditional media such as MomsTEAM play in prevention efforts, especially given the mainstream media's seeming preoccupation with reporting just the bad news about concussions and its unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and get ahead of the science (or, in some cases, to get the science flat-out wrong!).
I would have liked to have told the group about how MomsTEAM has been providing youth sports parents, coaches, athletic trainers, and sports administrators practical advice on preventing youth sports injuries and death for the past fourteen years, but it was neither the time nor the place.
When the panelists were asked whether they thought traditional media could serve as a vehicle for "edu-tainment," they didn't see it happening because sports fans are more interested in seeing sensational hits than watching shows that teach, and shows without large audiences don't attract sponsors, and shows without sponsors, well, they have a hard time getting made in the first place.
It seems that these days, even public television - which used to be called "educational television" - can find itself playing the ratings game.
Let's be honest here, folks. Which documentary is PBS going to go all out to promote: one such as Frontline's "League of Denial" sensationalizing the National Football League's response to head injuries, one which pulls at the heart strings by retelling the tragic stories of Mike Webster, Terry Long, and Junior Seau, one designed to scare the daylights out of every parent by including pathologist, Dr. Ann McKee, expressing concern whether, "in some way ... every single football player doesn't have [CTE]," or a documentary like "The Smartest Team," showing the stakeholders in a youth and high school football program in Oklahoma working together to make football safer, not just by taking steps to reduce concussion rates, but by identifying concussed athletes more quickly so they can be removed from play, a step which the consensus of concussion experts agree is the single best way to minimize their long-term effects? I bet dollars to donuts I know how the panelist would have answered an admittedly loaded question like that!
I will continue to work, as I have for the past 14 years, on working to make youth sports safer, no matter how difficult it is to be heard over the "sky is falling" crowd. Perhaps Dr. Satcher put it best when he closed the conference with one of his favorite quotes, from John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the 1960s: "Life is full of golden opportunities carefully disguised as irresolvable problems."
January 23, 2014 update: I am pleased to announce that I have been asked by Dr. Satcher to join 20 other national experts on the National Council on Youth Sports Safety to work on the PASS initiative. For more about the panel, click here.
Brooke de Lench is Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and producer/director of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."