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March 11, 2015

Joanne C. Gerstner: Tackling Concussion Debate

March 11, 2015

Joanne C. Gerstner, sports journalist in residence in the School of Journalism,  is an award-winning, multimedia sports journalist and author, has covered some of the biggest sporting events in the world, including the Olympics, women's and men's soccer World Cups, French and U.S. Open tennis championships, Ryder Cup, Stanley Cup, and NBA and NCAA playoffs and championships. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today,, PGA Magazine, The Detroit News and other media outlets.

I am really honored to represent the Michigan State School of Journalism at South by Southwest and show how we are on the cutting edge of the discussions about sports journalism and concussions. It is a vital topic in neurology, sports and medicine, and we hope our panel will be the first of many we do across the country to bring this important issue for all athletes to the forefront.

The SXSW panel, scheduled for March 13, will include Ben Utecht, tight end for the 2006 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, and Jeffrey Kutcher, a world-renowned sports neurologist. We will try to answer the question "Does Playing Sports Equal Brain Damage?"

Part of SXsports, the three-day, sports-focused programming of the SXSW festival, the panel also will include a live Twitter chat at 3 p.m. EDT March 13 on the Twitter handle @JeffKutcherMD. This is one of only two dozen panels to make the SXSW line-up, out of thousands of submissions to the selection committee.

Utecht, a former University of Minnesota star who retired from the NFL in 2009, suffered five known concussions during his football career, and in 2011, he began experiencing memory loss at the age of 30. Kutcher is a sports neurologist and Director of Michigan NeuroSport, the University of Michigan health system's sport neurology clinic. He also works with the NBA, NHL and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team.

I had the opportunity to study with Kutcher as a recipient of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where I spent a year embedded in the NeuroSport clinic studying concussions and athletes. We have written a book on youth concussions and sports aimed at coaches, athletes and parents, which will be released later this year by Oxford. We also have teamed up for the website,

Neurology does not know how to magically fix a concussion. Medicine can get better at diagnosing concussions, but we don't have a pill to give you to heal you. A blow to the head is still a blow to the head, and your brain is the most precious thing you have in your body, because once your brain is broken, we can't fix it. But medicine can work with athletes to help return them to normal.

Several lawsuits over concussions currently are pending in multiple sports, including the National Football League, National Hockey League and World Wrestling Entertainment. The lawsuits, brought by former professional athletes, are an attempt to recover damages sustained by the athletes while performing their jobs.

However, the debate isn't limited to just professional sports. Last July, the NCAA reached a settlement in a lawsuit brought by several former student athletes from a variety of sports that accused the NCAA of ignoring the concussion problem. A month later, former youth club soccer players and their parents, filed a lawsuit against FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, demanding rule changes in the sport.

On the May 16, the School of Journalism is hosting a sports and concussions symposium. More details will be announced as they become available. For more information on the SXSW panel, see the SXSW "Does Playing Sports Equal Brain Damage?" I will be tweeting from SXSW, which runs March 13-22, using @joannecgerstner

Revised from an article by the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Photo of Joanne Gerstner and Jeffrey Kutcher by Kathleen Galligan