Capitol Hill hearing examines concussions in youth sports
May 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Karen Kinzle Zegel, whose son Patrick Risha (photograph on the table) took his own life after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee during a hearing about concussions in youth sports Friday in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Kinzle Zegel's son Patrick Risha was an Elizabeth Forward football star who committed suicide at the age of 32 after suffering for years from CTE, a disease caused by repeated blows to the brain while playing tackle football.
By Brian Batko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A few seconds into her testimony Friday morning on Capitol Hill, Karen Kinzle Zegel trailed off mid-sentence.
“I’m going to cry,” she told the room, glancing up from her written statement.
This has become the new normal for Kinzle Zegel, no matter how many times she tells people about her late son, Patrick Risha, a former Elizabeth Forward High School football standout. After playing college football at Dartmouth, Risha killed himself in 2014 at age 32.
Since then, and since learning that Risha’s autopsy showed he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Kinzle Zegel has become a concussion awareness advocate, which led to her testimony in Washington at a hearing Friday on concussions in youth sports chaired by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair.
This gathering of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations was a follow-up to a roundtable discussion in March focusing on concussion research. Several experts convened Friday before the subcommittee, along with Kinzle Zegel and Kelli Jantz, another concussion advocate and the mother of a 14-year-old boy who died playing football in 2004.
“There’s a lot we do not know about concussions generally, but pediatric populations — including youth sports — are severely underrepresented in consistent research, and therein lays the challenge,” Murphy said at the start of the day’s proceedings. “The public wants answers that science is not yet ready to provide. We have much to learn about how concussions and repetitive head injuries affect younger individuals, both immediately as well as later in life.”
After Kinzle Zegel and Jantz told their personal stories of how they were blindsided by brain injuries to their sons, Murphy asked each of them if they knew whether coaches or other adults working with their sons’ teams had any specialized training to recognize concussions.
“At that time, I knew most of the coaches personally and I would have to guess no,” said Kinzle Zegel, who is president of the Patrick Risha CTE Awareness Foundation and also behind a movement to keep children from playing tackle football before 14 years old.
The second half of the hearing introduced several key players in many concussion discussions, including Dr. Andrew Gregory, a member of USA Football’s medical advisory committee; Dr. Thomas Talavage, a Purdue professor/researcher and member of the NCAA Concussion Task Force; Terry O’Neil, founder of the Practice Like Pros organization that advocates less hitting in practices and flag football until ninth grade; and Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens, who five years ago stopped all player-on-player tackling for his team except on game day.
Murphy, who also thanked former All-Pro NFL players Shawn Springs and Nick Lowery for attending, asked the panel of expert witnesses about what the greatest needs are for preventing concussions in youth sports. Many agreed that more data is needed at the youth and high school level, but that it must be quality data, as well.
Gregory noted that reporting of concussions at all levels remains an issue, but added progress has been made thanks to greater awareness from coaches and players. Dr. Dawn Comstock, a researcher and associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, pointed to research that showed a doubling of concussion rates between 2008 and 2012.
“Our high school athletes didn’t suddenly become twice as fast, strong and vicious,” Comstock said. “The years preceding that, there were concussions occurring that just went undiagnosed and unrecognized.”
Talavage tersely disagreed with the suggestion that more research still is needed to act on the concussion issue, while O’Neil called for more support from state governing bodies to take measures in limiting contact in practices.
Teevens, who coached Dartmouth to the Ivy League championship in 2015, received plenty of questions and spoke at length about what his team does in the absence of tackling, as well as the overall progress that has been made in taking brain injuries more seriously.
“I think it’s the coaches who have to drive that message,” Teevens said. ”I say it frequently, unless we change the way we coach the game, we won’t have a game to coach.”
Brian Batko: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrianBatko.
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