Rep. Pascrell Calls on ESPN to Combat Concussion Stigma and Admonish Analyst Comments
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09), co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, sent the following letter to John Skipper, President of ESPN, regarding recent comments ESPN analysts have made about concussions.
“As an organization that employs many retired college and NFL athletes, I would hope that you recognize the influence that your network and its employees have,” Pascrell wrote in a letter to Skipper. “When your employees make comments that belittle protocols and measures that aim to make sports safer and discount the seriousness of head injury, your organization has a responsibility to admonish them.”
The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Mr. Skipper,
I am writing to express my concern about recent comments made by ESPN analysts about concussions. As the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, I urge you to help ensure that the individuals that your organization employs treat head injuries with the gravity that they deserve.
In the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force works to increase awareness of brain injury in the United States, supports research initiatives for rehabilitation and potential cures, and strives to address the effects such injuries have on families, children, education, and the workforce.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are estimated to occur in the United States each year, ranging from relatively mild concussions to fatal head injuries. Though symptoms may appear minor, the injury can have life-long effects on an individual’s memory, behavior, learning, and/or emotions.
I appreciate the work that ESPN reporters have done to highlight the dangers of concussions, as well as quality programming that educates sports fans and raises awareness about the issue. For this reason, I find it surprising that your organization would fail to comment or discipline employees who make statements that significantly downplay the risks that football players and other athletes face as a result of head injuries.
In response to a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which raised questions about children playing contact sports due to concerns about brain injury, ESPN college football analyst Danny Kanell tweeted that “the war on football is real” and that “concussion alarmists are loving it.”
During an interview with Charlie Rose in October, ESPN analyst Ray Lewis dismissed concerns about concussions and accused the National Football League (NFL) and those pushing for improved health and safety measures of “diluting the game.” Additionally, he called new rules prohibiting targeting – when a player takes intentional aim at his opponent, especially his head or neck – “disgusting.”
One of the greatest challenges we face in combatting the concussion epidemic is changing people’s perceptions about the gravity of these injuries. We have made great strides in raising awareness and educating the public about the dangers of head injuries. However, unfortunately, a stigma still remains and athletes of all ages sometimes attempt to hide symptoms of concussions and continue playing out of fear that they will be viewed as weak or inferior. This is especially concerning in youth athletes.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a report, "Concussion at Play: Opportunities to Reshape the Culture Around Concussion," which provides recommendations on building a culture in sports that helps encourage athletes to help lower their chances of sustaining a concussion, as well as take necessary steps and time to recover in the event of a concussion. Many of the strategies may seem simple, but they can be extremely impactful and rely on the adults in children’s lives to set a good example. Changing the way coaches and parents talk about head injuries and react to young people reporting concussion symptoms is the first step to changing a culture that can be downright dangerous for athletes. The CDC found that young athletes who are ridiculed or insulted by their coaches or their parents for expressing concerns about a concussion are more likely to continue playing despite a possible head injury. Additionally, when youth athletes are not encouraged to report concussion symptoms, it becomes easy for them to view concussions as non-serious, which is not the case.
Professional athletes and sports media networks must play a role as well. As an organization that employs many retired college and NFL athletes, I would hope that you recognize the influence that your network and its employees have. When your employees make comments that belittle protocols and measures that aim to make sports safer and discount the seriousness of head injury, your organization has a responsibility to admonish them.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter. I look forward to your response. Please feel free to contact Alyssa Penna in my office at Alyssa.Penna@mail.house.gov or (202)225-5751.