Big Ten Football: Head injuries take center stage at summit

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The NCAA's decision to impose stiff penalties against head shots increases the scrutiny on player safety in all levels of football. The Big Ten Conference, along with they Ivy League, are stepping forward, trying to stop head trauma before it starts.

Football is the most popular television sport in this country, and there is plenty of support to make that statement a fact. The highest-rated show on broadcast television last year was NBC's Sunday Night Football. The BCS Title game drew a 15.1 fast national rating (about 26-27 million viewers), even though the game was a one-sided blowout. Even the college football regular season had its own great viewership, with headline-grabbing games bringing in viewers by the millions.

Indeed, we Americans love watching football. But that's only because we no longer long to play a game that has become faster, tougher, and much more violent.

Even in the midst of huge television ratings, football on the prep level is falling in big football states like California, and even here in Ohio. Participation is down, even at bigger, prestigious programs across the state. One high school coach told me that his team is suffering lowered numbers, and the biggest concern among parents is the rise in head injuries over the last decade. His team is down anywhere from 10-20% over the last five years. Parents don't want their kids to get hurt, some asking their kids to trade the chance to play in college in the name of safety.

The numbers aren't to the point that the sport is in trouble; Ohio State and Florida and Alabama and Michigan won't likely see rosters shrink down to unplayable numbers anytime soon or ever. But as the NCAA begins the implementation of new rules to curb dangerous hits, the Big Ten is focusing on making the game safer before those hits can have the chance to injure.

Following up on an "unprecedented research initiative" announced in June, 2012, members of the Big Ten, the Ivy League and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) got together earlier this month with the goal of refining strategic priorities in the attempt to make the game that all Americans love safer for those taking part.

The goal of the Big Ten-Ivy League Head Injury Summit was not to eliminate head injuries - that can't be done with just a room of great minds alone. Rather, the participants of the summit set out to redefine where research is going, reviewing current research and literature on the topic of traumatic brain injuries and sports. The findings of the review spoke very highly of the summit's hosts: Big Ten, CIC and Ivy League institutions are among the most cited, most published works on the topic of sports and traumatic brain injury, making the summit attendees some of the best subject matter experts on the topic.

The summit wasn't all talk, either. Positive next steps weren't just discussed, they were taken. All of the summit participants, which featured representation from all of the Big Ten and Ivy League schools, along with the CIC, are moving forward to address review processes, funding sources and project administration. These are the first steps into making a popular yet violent game that much safer, and to create an environment where a student-athlete's well-being is the first priority.

Commitment to the initiative was at the forefront of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who participated in the summit. "We were so encouraged to see the level of commitment and collaboration between representatives from the Big Ten and Ivy League," Delany said after the summit. "We know that protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes is a shared responsibility and we were thrilled to take part.”

The Big Ten, which features some of the best research institutions in the country, mixing with the Ivy League, home to many of the top educational institutions in the country, represent an impressive blend of idea generation and future planning. "Rarely do leaders from different disciplines, both clinical and research, have the opportunity to share ideas, develop a new data repository from our student-athletes that sustain head injuries and ultimately create collaborative research initiatives with the ultimate goal being to better care for all of our student-athletes, young and old alike.” said Michigan State's Head Team Physician Dr. Jeff Kovan.

Other participants were even more encouraged that the main collegiate bodies involved, the Big Ten and the Ivy League, were the ones to move the research initiative forward. “The Big Ten and Ivy League have embarked on a cutting-edge research initiative that serves as a new model of cooperation between the conferences and the NCAA," said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's Chief Medical Officer. "Through sharing and analysis of common data elements in injury surveillance, the ability to make data-driven recommendations for student-athlete health and safety will advance considerably.”

“Concussion in athletics is a growing public health concern with increased attention being focused on treatment and management of this puzzling epidemic," said Dr. Seymon Sloubonov, Penn State's Director of Sports Concussion Research and Services. To Dr. Sloubonov, collaboration will be the backbone of creating a safer game. "I believe that the Big Ten-Ivy League Head Injury Summit has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to combine our intellectual resources in order to address numerous questions and controversies about sports-related concussion."

Traumatic brain injury and sports-related concussions are no longer a topic that is taken lightly. Indeed, the future of the sport depends on research initiatives and collaboration between the best minds in their fields to increase safety for student-athletes. By engaging in this summit, the Big Ten and Ivy League have taken a big step forward to help increase that safety.

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