Sports equipment manufacturers who say their products prevent concussions are making "empty, unsubstantiated" claims, a key Senate chairman said Wednesday, and could face new regulations if they do not change their marketing practices.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV said he found it "disturbing" that "some sports equipment manufacturers are exploiting our growing concerns about sports concussions to market so-called 'anti-concussion' products to athletes and their parents."
The West Virginia Democrat chaired a hearing focused on the "concussion epidemic" among young American athletes, as well as what has been called "questionable marketing practices" of sports equipment manufacturing companies.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, cited a claim by Riddell Inc., a leading football helmet maker and official supplier to the NFL, that its Revolution brand helmet may reduce concussions by 31 percent, as an example of companies taking advantage of the "increasing awareness" of the danger of sports-related brain injuries.
No representatives from Riddell or other individual manufacturers testified at the hearing. Riddell officials called Mr. Udall's charges of misleading marketing "unfounded and unfair" after he introduced his bill earlier this year.
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, director of Michigan Neurosport, a clinic that diagnoses and treats concussions for athletes, told lawmakers that no piece of equipment can significantly prevent concussions.
"The potential harm that I see being caused by products that claim to prevent concussion when they do not is far more than simply the financial harm of paying more for something that isn't likely to work as claimed," he said. "It is the harm that comes from having a false sense of security, from not understanding how the injury occurs and what can actually be done to prevent it."
Dr. Kutcher said the rising incidence for concussions overall and in youth sports stemmed from three factors: greater awareness and medical testing for brain injuries; the fact that younger athletes are bigger and stronger than in the past; and changes in the way games like football and played and coached now.
He recalled a Michigan sports coach telling him that football today featured "more hitting and less tackling" than in the past.
Steven Threet, a senior at Arizona State University and former quarterback, sustained four concussions in his football career before the impact of the injury led him to give it up. He told lawmakers that too often football helmets are regarded as "brain protectors" when they do nothing more than prevent harm to the skull.
"If a helmet could guarantee protection from concussions, I would still be playing football," said Mr. Threet.
The Children's Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act, introduced by Mr. Udall, follows up a request the senator made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate what he called "misleading safety claims and deceptive practices" in advertising for equipment, specifically those sold for use by youngsters.
The legislation would give the industry nine months to come up with new standards that address concussion risks and the specific needs of young players, as well as make it a crime to sell any sporting equipment that makes false or misleading claims about safety benefits.
Sports are the second-leading cause of traumatic brain injury for 15- to 24-year-olds, behind motor vehicle crashes. Every year American athletes get an estimated 3.8 million sports-related concussions, of which more than 70,000 involve high school football players.
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