The one thing about the upcoming movie “Concussion” on which most people can agree is that talking about the topic as it relates to football safety is a good thing.
So Julian Bailes did Tuesday during a conference call with reporters, the transcript of which ran more than 7,600 words. And this was between him doing two brain surgeries that day.
Bailes is chairman of the department of neurosurgery and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute, as well as an expert on the subject of sports-related concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
In the film, he is played by Alec Baldwin. In real life, he still works with Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who in the film is portrayed by Will Smith.
But while Omalu wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times Monday calling for a ban on youth football, Bailes is far more optimistic about the improvements in safety since the era depicted in the film, and about the sport in general.
“I’m a big believer in the benefits of organized sports, and the benefits of football,” he said. “I have two children who play football. And I think football is safer than it’s ever been.”
For Bailes, chairman of Pop Warner Football’s medical advisory committee, that belief is based on greater understanding of the long-term impact of repeated blows to the head, and steps designed to protect players from those effects.
Bailes said he found the film generally accurate in portraying the events of the late 2000s, even though he allowed for some Hollywood touches to compress and dramatize events. “I think they made an effort to get the story straight,” he said.
Still, while the film inevitably will scare some people — and parents — away from football, Bailes believes CTE is an issue for a minority of NFL players from earlier eras and likely for an even smaller minority today because of reforms in the sport.
Most former players who have been examined for CTE after their deaths have had it. But Bailes said that is a “very skewed, very biased sample if you look at it scientifically or epidemiologically,” because it mostly includes those who exhibited possible signs of the disease in their behavior.
Said Bailes: “I don’t think we have an epidemic on our hands. And I think that we don’t know the exact prevalence . . . I would say maybe 20 percent to 30 percent of the ones who played in the pre-reform era may have some form of CTE. But that is just a guess.”
Bailed pointedly disagreed with Omalu’s take on youth football, saying, “Certainly, you know, hitting your brain doesn’t do anybody any good. But there have been a lot of changes made at the youth football level. I think it is not scientifically accepted that the youth’s brain is necessarily more vulnerable than an adult brain.
“I don’t think the facts support that there are cases of CTE from youth football participation. And I don’t think the facts support that kids are suffering or being brain damaged from playing youth football as they had the last 50 years.”
He said playing football is and should be a personal choice.
“You know, as parents for instance we teach our kids a lot of things,” he said. “We teach them how to snow ski, how to snowboard, how to swim, how to hunt. We teach them about driving. We teach them a lot of sports and activities and so part of that is our responsibility to teach them the safe and right way to do it. But at the end of the day all these activities have potential risks.”
The key at every level, Bailes said, is education and reform where needed.
“I think that we’ve done almost all we can do to reduce unnecessary or gratuitous head contact, whether it’s in practice or in games,” he said. “The sport may continue to need to evolve some more in the future. We may need to take linemen out of the three-point stance. One day we may need to eliminate punt returns or other high-velocity plays. I’m not advocating that but I’m saying that there may be further evolution.
“But I’ve been involved at the administrative level from the NFL and I’m a member of the NFL Players Association Health and Safety Committee. From the NFL on down through the NCAA and the National Federation of High School and Pop Warner Football, so I’ve been involved in every level, and I can tell you there is zero denial of the problem, zero minimization of the problem.
“And I think there’s been a wonderful acceptance of the nature of this problem and a willingness and a great American spirit and the greatest American sport to make appropriate changes to make it safe for everyone to enjoy.”