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Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen and Dr. Stanley A. Herring.
Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen and Dr. Stanley A. Herring.

The NFL today announced a $2.5 million donation to the University of Washington School of Medicine for a new institute that will study how to prevent and treat sports-related concussions.

The UW’s new Sports Health and Safety Institute will focus primarily on how to make youth sports safer. It will be led by Richard G. Ellenbogen, UW Medicine’s Department of Neurological Surgery Chair, and Stanley A. Herring, medical director of Spine, Sports and Orthopedic Health for UW Medicine. Ellenbogen is also the co-chairman of the NFL head, neck and spine committee, while Herring is a team physician for the Mariners and Seahawks.

“Though research is underway on the topic across the country, there are many questions that remain unanswered regarding concussions and traumatic brain injury (TBI),” Herring said in a statement. “The Institute will help tremendously in forging the path forward and uncovering ways to better engage and educate all interested parties about concussions and discover the best methods to effectively translate learning into behavior change.”

The inspiration for the institute, which is looking to raise $10.5 million, largely came about after Zackery Lystedt was treated at UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center for major head trauma in 2006. Lystedt, then 13, had re-entered a youth football game even though he suffered a head injury earlier on.

As a result, Lystedt’s family and several organizations helped create the Zackery Lystedt Law, which was adopted in all 50 states and regulates how and when athletes return to play.

“Our hope is that the research and findings uncovered by the Institute will be used to help shape the rules, regulations and best practices as it relates to safety across all sports,” Ellenbogen said in a statement. “It is far too often that athletes have a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality, so it is our responsibility to ensure the medical staff on the sidelines have the knowledge and resources in place to ensure that no athlete returns to the field prematurely.”

UWUW Medicine noted that 35 million children participate in U.S. recreational sports each year, with 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occurring in the same time frame.

The institute said that while it will first focus on concussion-related injuries, it may also research other health-related topics in sports like sudden cardiac arrest.

As far as American football is concerned, there is certainly an ongoing concussion crisis impacting the popular game. One out of every three retired NFL players is expected to develop long-term cognitive problems; doctors are criticizing the NCAA for how it protects student-athletes from head trauma; and parents — from LeBron James to Brett Favre — are skeptical of allowing their children to play football due to safety concerns.

footballhelmet Football helmets haven't changed all that much in the past few decades. Photo via Flickr user larrison.
Photo via Flickr user larrison.

It’s a pressing problem for the NFL, which was sued in 2013 by former players who were suffering from brain injuries and blamed the NFL for hiding the dangers of head trauma. More and more players as of late are deciding to retire early over concussion risks.

On a related note, a UW-spinout called Vicis is developing a high-tech helmet that aims to reduce head trauma. The company, which spun out of the university last year, has raised more than $5 million, including $500,000 this past November from the Head Health Challenge program run by the NFL, Under Armour, and GE.

There are a handful of other startups around the world that are coming up with innovations to help reduce and/or monitor concussions in sports. More recently during the Women’s World Cup, you may have noticed U.S. women’s soccer player Ali Kreiger using a protective headband after suffering a concussion during a game in April. Other Seattle-based companies in this space include X2 Biosystems and i1 Biometrics.

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