In the past two years, the outrage surrounding sports-related concussions has mounted. In January 2011, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the football helmet industry for 'misleading safety claims and deceptive practices,' which the agency is currently pursuing. In June 2012, more than 2,000 former NFL players filed a class-action suit against the league as well as Riddell, the largest football-helmet manufacturer and an official NFL partner, accusing them of obfuscating the science of brain trauma. The litigation could drag on for years and cost billions of dollars."
-- From "Helmet Wars" by Tom Foster, Popular Science, Dec. 12, 2012
Football is in danger
Last year featured an array of wrenching "discoveries": a small army of researchers, attorneys and journalists connected the dots between brain and neurological damage and routine practices in American football. Long-term, catastrophic player damage has come to light recently via rigorous, peer-reviewed research and early-stage legal cases advanced by damaged players and their advocates. And of late, there have been a raft of previously unimaginable headlines, including more than one roughly titled, "The End of Football?"
Months ago, in this space, I asked a question: Where are the Green Country sports medicine pros, the technologists and industrial engineers, the software mavens who can craft the new protective gear, the real-time, on-field diagnostic stuff, player therapies, and new game strategies required to reinvent football?
Some days ago, I met with Dr. Gerard Clancy, a psychiatrist and president of OU/Tulsa. He graciously agreed to spend some time with me as I continued the background and interview work for my ongoing UTW series on the president's national brain mapping initiative. I wanted his help in improving my understanding of the science at issue, local bio-med, and new Tulsa employment and development yields that might spring from this effort. When we started the interview, Clancy could barely contain his enthusiasm for an upcoming, highly relevant Tulsa film showing and panel discussion. He told me, with a good deal of excitement, that he and others had organized a screening of Head Games, an award-winning documentary film about the concussion crisis in American sports in general and football in particular.
Head Gabym is slated for a public showing on June 6 at 6pm at the Gussman Auditorium in TU's Lorton Performance Center. Thanks to Dr. Clancy, the movie will be followed by a panel exchange packed with a galaxy of local bio-med, brain science, sports medicine and senior coaches, including Clancy -- who helms OU/Tulsa and is an active member of OU's psychiatry faculty -- Dr. Lamont Cavanagh with the sports medicine unit at OU, Dr. Pat Bellgowan, a neuroscientist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research, TU's head athletic trainer David Polansky, Union High School trainer Daniel Newman, and TU coaches Tom McIntosh and Bill Blankenship.
While it's been in distribution for some months now, I hadn't heard about Games, but director Steve Jones made Hoop Dreams, arguably one of the finest documentaries ever made.
Head Games is a painful examination of the costs and fateful consequences of football in its current incarnation. One of the film's narrators is Christopher Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive lineman, and later, a professional wrestler. Nowinski is now with a bio med and neuro science shop at Boston University that is looking closely at the concussion and football player nexus and the forced reckoning it creates for football. BU's institute is looking specifically at chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that looks to be spawned by repeated blows to the head (15,000 in a typical pro career, by one estimate) -- the result of the routine, often brutal encounters at the core of modern football.
SCM and The Ball
As some readers may know, Dr. Clancy is the visionary driver of the School of Community Medicine (SCM) in Tulsa. SCM is a breakout medical school and actually a joint venture between OU and the University of Tulsa.
In its dramatically re-imagined 2014 re-launch, SCM will be organized around producing doctors who are extra sensitive to the context in which patients live, work, and play. It will be devoted to mitigating obesity and collateral lifestyle challenges, equipping docs with superior diagnostic and general medicine skills and insights into the critical nutrition, fitness, and mental health fields. The school will also address some of the grand failures of modern medicine -- cost and care problems created by fragmented services and doctoral overspecialization. The graduates will learn plenty about cross-specialty collaboration and powerfully preventive work, or what some call social or community medicine.
Tulsa's SCM will be a perfect avenue, together with the research facilities at both TU and OU, for working on the "next football." What we have to do, arguably, is illuminate a way forward for this epic sport, the giant Oklahoma business and university ecologies that have sprung up around it, and our humongous fan cultures: a spirited, highly imaginative re-think of how the sport is played and what can be done to mitigate the profound damage to current and retired athletes that is now stunningly evident.
What we may have is a radiant chance to turn a crisis into a frontier opportunity and an economic development gambit: a shot at helping to re-engineer the great game. Think about it. It's tangible stuff creating an array of fresh diagnostic tools, novel human/stress monitoring sensor tech, and smarter helmets and body-hardening gizmos. Together, this rad tool kit and some breakout safety protocols might not only transform football but -- like America's fateful intercontinental ballistic missile program that fostered spin-offs which helped conjure electronic miniaturization and the PC/Internet revolution -- have a heavy impact on every part of the realm. And while entities like the NFL and General Electric have already fired up research and pilot efforts along these lines, Oklahoma and our football "camp" is as well-positioned as any other to play a bold, decisive role in this new world.
If you love football or would simply like to witness a piece of the future being hand-crafted as you watch, come and see Head Games and hang out for an epic post movie talk at Lorton on Thursday, June 6.
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