LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Representatives from the Chicago Bears and the NFL came together Wednesday to host a forum on health and safety at Halas Hall, and concussions were the focus of the hour-long event.
More than 50 football coaches and players from about 25 Chicago-area high schools were on hand to hear presentations from and ask questions of several speakers, including Bears trainer Chris Hanks, who drilled home the message on concussions that he hoped coaches would take with them and share with their colleagues.
"When in doubt, sit them out," Hanks said.
The forum was part of the NFL's effort to increase awareness of brain injuries and it's a topic of particular interest to Illinois high school football coaches, players and their parents since the state passed a law in July to protect youth athletes from returning to play too soon after experiencing the effects of a concussion. Thirty-three other states have passed similar laws, and the NFL and NCAA continue to lobby governors to support youth concussion legislation.
H. Hunt Batjer — the co-chair of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee and department chair of neurological surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago — briefed the attendees on what is being done at the league level to address concussions and said the NFL has made significant progress in its goal of preventing brain injuries thanks to a rule change that was passed last year.
Batjer told the audience that moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, which resulted in a major increase in touchbacks, reduced concussions by 50 percent on those plays.
The work of Batjer and the committee continues in earnest, though. He said the committee he co-chairs had met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Sunday and Monday this week and that Goodell sat in on five hours of discussions.
"I don't think there's anything more important to Roger than the health and well-being of NFL players," Batjer said. "He is the real deal. He has worked with us very closely."
Despite the push for players to report feeling concussion-like symptoms to trainers and team doctors on the sideline during games, there is still resistance from some players, including Bears MLB Brian Urlacher, who told HBO's "Real Sports" last month that he would try to hide a concussion.
"That's an honest reaction on Brian's part of how he would personally deal with concussion-like symptoms," Bears chairman George McCaskey said. "I want to point out that he did not say it was the correct way to deal with a potential concussion, but it's a common mentality among sports athletes. They don't want to let their teammates down. They don't want to let their coaches down.
"There's a warrior mentality and this is exactly the reason that we are here today. What can we learn from comments like Brian's? First, that we have a long way to go to change the culture of sports. Players need to feel confident that they can report problems without being labeled. We need to continue the education process so that players, coaches, trainers and parents are making informed decisions, and teammates need to look out for each other because, frequently, it's the injured player who is in the worst position possible to be making a judgment about his or her continued participation."
That is why the speakers Wednesday, including Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth of the Midwest Center for Concussion Care — who is the independent neurologist the Bears use for player evaluations — encouraged the student-athletes to speak up when something seems wrong with a teammate.
Bears long-snapper Patrick Mannelly said that's exactly what happened a few years ago after he was blindsided covering a punt vs. the Seahawks. His former teammate, Olin Kreutz, noticed then when he was talking to Mannelly after the play that something wasn't right. So, Kreutz grabbed Mannelly and took him to the training staff, who sat him out for the rest of the game and the next week.
"We, as players and coaches, need to change the culture of concussions," Mannelly said. "I can remember sitting at your guys' age. If you had a concussion, it was almost like you were a wimp. … It's not that way anymore. We know a lot more about it. We know the severity of it. We know that repetitive concussions can really lead to some serious damage.
"It starts here with you guys as players and coaches, us as professional athletes, to get it out there to understand that the culture has got to change. I remember being a kid, and you didn't want to be a wimp. This is a tough sport. We all know that. You play hurt. But, guys, this isn't something you play hurt. This is your life.
"Friday night's a big night, but it's not that big."
NFL spokesman Clare Graff said the league intends to have more events like the one Wednesday in all 32 cities that are home to an NFL team.
"The goal is to have every team have health and safety programming as part of their community programming," Graff said. "It may not be this exact event wherever we go, but the goal is to have them work health and safety programming into their community relations programming.
"The goal is to spread as much education as we can. We have a host of experts at the team level and at the league level and these teams are so embedded in their communities that it's a good way to bring together our experts, team experts with the youth athletes that look up to the teams as the center point of their communities.
"It's been a priority at the league level and the team level for a long time. I think that we're realizing more and more how much communities and teams get out of these kinds of events."