Home » Blog » Brooke De Lench » "The Smartest Team": Staking Out The Sensible Middle In The Polarized Debate About Football

Meticulously researched

Each element of our Six Pillar approach is supported by the very latest peer-reviewed research that the naysayers claim is lacking.  For proof of just how meticulous we have been in making factual assertions in the documentary, one simply has to run their mouse over the Concussion Resources tab on the The Smartest Team website and, when the pull-down menu appears, click on any of the Pillar-by-Pillar bibliographies to the documentary. 

Each of those bibliographies sets forth a verbatim recitation from the transcript of key statements made over the course of the documentary (with time signature references), after which is a list of the peer-reviewed journal articles or other sources and related MomsTEAM content which support those statements.  In an age when the truth has become, all too often, a malleable concept, we have taken our reputation as the trusted source of health and safety information for youth sports parents very seriously, and for anyone to imply otherwise suggests as, Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men," that they can't handle the truth.

So, you might be saying, what about the slide at the end of the documentary reporting (another spoiler alert) that the 2012 Newcastle High football team had only two diagnosed concussions, as compared to the 16 diagnosed concussions sustained by players during the 2011 season? 

It is important to begin at the beginning: to remember that Newcastle came to me and MomsTEAM for help. The program knew that in order to keep the boys active, healthy and playing the game they love, and that many of them had played when they were in high school, it needed to reduce the high rate of concussion. The school board, superintendent, principal, coaches, athletic director, AT, team doctors, parents and players, all enthusiastically supported the project.  They understood the importance of everything we were suggesting and documenting.

We worked very closely with all of the stakeholders in the Newcastle football programs (including youth and middle school) and trusted that they would provide us with the names of the boys who were concussed. Because some of the players wore impact sensors which provided us with some data, the process was as transparent as it could be.  It was in the best interest of the team to be honest with us, and if more players had sustained concussions, they knew that we would have explored on camera how and why they occurred (as we did with the two players who were concussed).  We also taught the players the importance of using a "buddy system" to watch out for concussion signs in their teammates, and were gratified that they acted responsibly in watching each other's backs.

Since we weren't conducting a controlled study, we don't know why the number of concussions dropped from 16 to 2. But here again, we aren't overselling or claiming credit for the drop, although we would like to think it was due to something other than pure chance.  But it is a  fact that the number dropped, and I don't believe that there is anything unseemly or boastful about reporting that fact, which we did without any embellishment. 

Indeed, we went out of our way on The Smartest Team website to make clear that "to what extent the sharp reduction in the number of diagnosed concussions at Newcastle High was the result of greater concussion awareness by players, coaches, parents, and medical staff, improved tackling technique, chest, shoulder, and neck strengthening, and improved conditioning, and/or properly fitted helmets, is unknown," that "MomsTEAM and the producers of 'The Smartest Team' make no representation that other football programs will experience a similar reduction by implementing a comprehensive concussion risk management program like the one featured in the film, nor do they believe this result is typical," and that "[I]t is important to remember that taking steps to try to reduce the number of concussions is just one of six ways to make a football program safer."  (I might add that other football programs are now experiencing sharp drops in the number of concussions)

Ongoing process

We also careful to explain on The Smartest Team website that the documentary is no more than an "audio-visual blueprint," and "an introduction to a set of principles (the Six Pillars) to guide development of a sound concussion risk management program based on the latest research and opinions of experts; to provide a solid foundation on which to build such a program;" that we see it "only as as a jumping off point for what we hope will be the beginning of a multi-year and continuing process involving parents, coaches, players, athletic directors, school boards, booster clubs, and health care professionals, motivated by a desire to preserve all that is good about youth and high school football, to work as a team to implement best practices in concussion risk management."

That the concussion landscape is constantly changing and shifting in response to new technologies, studies, and the thinking of experts is also an important point worth emphasizing. As former i1 Biometrics' CEO Lawrence Calcano observes near the end of the documentary, "The process of understanding what is happening to athletes when they compete is not a process that we're gonna end in the next three months or six months, or next football season. This is a multi-year activity that's gonna require the collection of a very significant amount of data. Over time, when you have millions of data points, then the medical community and the research community can begin to make sense of it and decide at what point, you know, is there injury?"

Because we recognize that our understanding of concussions, how they can be prevented, treated and managed, and the effect that repetitive sub-concussive impacts may have on an athlete's brain and cognitive function, is rapidly evolving, we are making every effort to stay abreast of those changes by continuing to follow and work with the Newcastle football program on ways to improve player safety. Because new impact sensors have come on the market since we filmed the team in 2012, we have worked with the team and leading sensor manufacturers to outfit players with several new brands of sensors. As before, we are not conducting a controlled study, but taking these steps with one simple objective: to keep the players safe.  It's hard to argue with that. 

Our hope is that youth and high school football programs around the country, after learning about the Six Pillar approach outlined in the documentary, will themselves implement similar concussion risk management programs, experience a drop in the number of concussions, and protect the long-term health of players by hiring an athletic trainer if they don't already have one, doing a better job of identifying concussed athletes, removing them as quickly as possible from games or practices, affording them the physical and cognitive rest they need to allow their brains to heal, and allowing them to return to game action only after they have returned to baseline on all their pre-concussion tests and have completed the graduated, symptom-limited exercise program most experts recommend.. 

Content provider to NFL

Now, on to the second question that some folks are asking, and a loaded one at that: What role did the NFL play in the production of The Smartest Team, and isn't our objectivity clouded by financial support from the league? The simple fact is that the NFL had nothing to do with the documentary, nor has it provided ever provided financial support to MomsTEAM EVER.  We joined forces with NFL in October 2012 strictly as a "content partner" to its NFL Evolution website (now called NFL Health Playbook). Each week, the NFL ran a selection of five MomsTEAM articles and/or videos, for which there was no charge.  I am now nor I have ever been a paid consultant to the NFL, either for supplying content, or for participating in their annual Health and Safety roundtables, or for offering suggestions on how best to reach sports parents, especially moms.

Everything I did for the NFL was pro bono and was  intended to strengthen and preserve the sport. MomsTEAM's editors and I always retained complete control over the editorial content of MomsTEAM and the The Smartest Team was in no way influenced by any corporation or sports organization.

Have I, on occasion, applauded steps taken by the NFL to improve player safety? Absolutely. But I have also taken the NFL to task on many other occasions. (Exhibit A: I was highly critical of the NFL in an episode of ESPN's Outside the Lines) Simply put, for anyone to suggest that I or MomsTEAM is in the pocket of the NFL is flat out wrong.  As I have since the very beginning of MomsTEAM in 2000, I answer only to one group and one group only: sports parents. 

Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team," and author of the critically-acclaimed book, "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports" (New York: Harper Collins).