Rev. Katherine Brearley, mother of deceased Penn football player Owen Thomas, testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor Thursday morning, discussing legislation that she and other witnesses believe could help more safely manage the short- and long-term effects of concussions.
The “Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act,” introduced by Rep. Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.), asks K-12 school districts to implement concussion management plans — much in the same way that the NCAA has mandated individual colleges and universities to establish their own protocol for handling head injuries.
“This is a very widespread problem, and I appreciate the interest of Congress in this,” Brearley said in her testimony. “Congress can use their good will, their good offices to promote widespread discussion of this very difficult situation.”
Attention to the long-term impacts of concussions has turned from professional athletes to younger players, especially in the weeks since Thomas was discovered to have a neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma that has also been linked to depression.
Thomas committed suicide in his off-campus apartment last April, joining a list of over 20 former professional football players who have been diagnosed with the disease post-mortem.
Brearley was joined by several others who backed the legislation, including Stanley Herring, team physician for the Seattle Seahawks; Gerry Gioia, chief of pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s National Medical Center; and Sean Morey, a former NFL wide receiver and executive committee member of the NFL Players Association.
The legislation, which is based on similar laws already enacted in some states, was endorsed in a letter Thursday from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The bill aims both to increase awareness of concussion symptoms and risks in young athletes, as well as to improve safety and management of head injuries in public-school students by implementing return-to-play policies.
“When a student-athlete suffers a concussion, he or she needs support on the field and support in the classroom to ensure a full recovery,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee and co-sponsor of the bill. “Unfortunately, the pressure to play too often outweighs a student athlete’s safety concerns.”
“We need to approach this in as many ways as we possibly can,” Brearley said. “I think at the federal level, there is an opportunity to give a minimum of guidelines or requirements for student athletes, and then states and school districts should themselves have the opportunity to adopt additional standards.”
Beyond any established protocol, the bill hopes to boost awareness among players, parents and coaches so that they can recognize and report head injuries.
During his testimony, Herring displayed a poster for professional players, put together by the NFL, the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society, representatives from the Center for Disease Control and other medical experts. They plan to release a similar one for younger athletes.
At the top, in foreboding letters, the NFL poster reads: CONCUSSION.
Near the bottom, next to pictures of young athletes, it reads, “Help make our game safer. Other athletes are watching…”