Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 2 - Brussels, Belgium

I met with Jacob Kornbeck, Policy Officer in the Unit for Sport of the Directorate General for Education and Culture of the European Commission. From what I gathered from others, Jacob is the ‘go-to’ guy in the EU for anything regarding sports policy and personally holds the institutional knowledge of the EU. He said concussions were not on their radar screen, as his office is generally directed to do research on issues driven by Members of the European Parliament (MEP’s). Historically the Unit for Sport began due to the issue of human rights, which has taken them in many interesting directions. First it was soccer players’ rights to work. The EU is a supposed to be a single market, so the EU had to legislate the ability of players to work anywhere.

Much of their current work involves legislating pro sports versus amateur sport. European pro sports as a whole do not have strong unions, hence cyclists give blood for drug tests while MLB and NFL players can refuse the needle. Another example is the “Whereabouts Program”, where athletes have to check-in to provide their location any time they are contacted by sports authorities, and if they don’t check in 3 times they can receive severe penalties with no recourse for challenges or arbitration. Jacob pointed out, “It’s interesting - you can challenge a positive drug test but not the whereabouts program.” Finally, the athletes have little or no input into how long their personal medical data (or fluids) can be kept in places with unknown security measures.

Currently, the biggest priorities of the office are anti-obesity and anti-doping, but Jacob was certainly interested in the concussion work and recommended I try to track down Sean Kelly, MEP and former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association and Exec Chairman of the Irish Institute of Sport.

Lunch with a Member of the Belgium Parliament

My next stop was the Belgium Parliament, where I was treated to a tour and lunch with Mr. Manu Beuselinck, a member of the House of Representatives and Sebastien van Koekenbeek, a committee advisor. Mr. Beuselinck is a member of the Nieuw‐Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), now the largest party in parliament (of about 9). Belgium is in a shocking situation – currently there is no functioning federal government. Belgium is a country of 10 million inhabitants, but two distinct cultures. In Flanders, the Flemish speaks Dutch. In Wallonia, they speak French. Officially, both languages are the official languages of country, and everything is listed in both. Currently, the N-VA party wants Flanders to peacefully become an independent country, or at least an independent economy.

It is a shocking contradiction to the EU, which is all about unity and multi-nationalism. So in Brussels, right in the middle of the country, you have the ‘capital’ of Europe, where officials from 27 languages coexist, while the locals are trying to pull apart. I could talk about this forever, but I assume cultural studies are not why anyone is reading this. The New Yorker handles it here. Long story short – great discussion with Manu.

Meeting with the European Research Council

I ended the day with a meeting with Ms. Filipa Ferraz de Oliveira, a research program officer at the Scientific Council of the ERC. The ERC has a new grant program for scientists meant to boost ‘frontier research’ and recruit European scientists back to Europe with 5 year grants up to 3 million euros. Filipa provided a wonderful overview of the organization and was interested in our BU CSTE work. When I told her that I may be trying to start some athlete brain banking over here, she warned me that some cultures here won’t be so fast as America to embrace the idea. Specifically, Filipa (who is Portuguese) said that she wouldn’t expect the countries of Southern Europe to be interested – Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. I say that is a challenge.

Although she did inform me Portuguese bullfighting is fertile ground for head injuries

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 1 - Brussels, Belgium

Day 1 of my Eisenhower Fellowship started off strong. I am participating in the European Union Visitors Program (EUVP). Around 200 people from around the globe come to Brussels, Belgium, headquarters of the European Union, to meet with members of the EU to discuss topics relevant to their work. My program manager Vitor put together a terrific program that looks promising for meeting with people in sports, science, and policy.

Meeting the Other EUVP Members

But my first conversation of the morning provided the most interesting takeaway of the day. There are 3 other participants this week, Haddis Tadesse of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (USA), David Wallsh on a Rosenthal Fellowship (USA), and Ms. Gokce Uysal-Kolasin, an economist from Turkey. We were discussing each other’s work, and when I mentioned I study Chronic Traumatic Encephalpathy, Gokce, aka Gigi, said, “That’s like a dayak aptali or a dayak salagi. In Turkey a dayak aptali is ‘one who became stupid because of a beating.’” Apparently corporal punishment in Turkey is so frequent and severe that they have a term to tell parents “anywhere but the head.” Maybe Turkey is way ahead of us on this issue… or way behind.

After a visit to EUVP headquarters to discuss my program, we went over to Parliament for a fine lunch (wine included, of course), where Gigi provided us with another gem. We were discussing how 23 languages are spoken at the EU, and everyone who works there must speak at least 3 languages, and how difficult it is to get the nuances of spelling and grammar in other countries. I mentioned how American spelling must be difficult as there are so many exceptions to our rules. Gigi agreed, adding, “What is a spelling bee? We’d never have a spelling bee in Turkey. There is no point. Everything is spelled like it sounds.” That ruined a childhood point of pride for me - winning 3 spelling bees in a row in 5th grade – as it appears it is not as much a talent as it is a necessary teaching tool for inefficiently spelled language cobbled together from so many others.

Intro to the EU

The European Union itself is a fascinating organization, with 27 European countries working together on economic and political issues, with the jurisdiction and laws determined by treaties, most recently the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. Most Americans don’t know much about the history and structure of the EU, including me before a presentation from Mr. Klaus Hullmann, administrator in the Visits Service of the Directorate for Communication, Press, and Protocol in the Committee of the Regions of the E.U. (The titles here are fantastic).

Meeting with the Commission for Research, Innovation, and Science

Vitor set up a meeting for me with Patricia Reilly, member of the Cabinet of Mr. Maire Georghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science. She was joined by Dr. Philippe Cupers, Head of Sector Neuroscienes for the Unit of Medical Research and Innovation of the European Commission. With this meeting I was hoping to gauge their level of knowledge and interest in sports concussions and CTE, and it was a very positive meeting. Dr.Cupers and the EU are already involved in a collaboration with NIH on gathering data to develop diagnostic and treatment protocols for traumatic brain injury (TBI), and he came with a published paper on their progress for launching this large scale study. However, the CTE work had not yet made the agenda, so it was exciting to discuss the state of research and directions it needs to travel to make meaningful contributions to public health.

Perhaps the most interesting take away was provided by Ms. Reilly during our conversation (that will come up a lot on this trip) that in America we have pitch counts in youth baseball to protect a child’s elbow, but do not even consider how often they get hit in the head in American football or soccer. Ms. Reilly leaned back and said, “That’s interesting. We even regulate how often a jockey can whip his horse!” It’s true – look it up. In some places, every whip after 8 is a fine…

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 22, 2011 - Ready to Launch

I am about to embark on an Eisenhower Fellowship. Eisenhower Fellowships was founded in 1953 as a gift to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to celebrate his first birthday in the White House. A group of Pennsylvania businessmen established an international leader exchange program to honor Ike’s devotion to world peace. Since then, nearly 2000 Fellows from around the world have participated in the program.

“Eisenhower Fellowships engages emerging leaders from around the world to enhance their professional capabilities, broaden their contacts, deepen their perspectives, and unite them in a diverse, global community - a network where dialogue, understanding, and collaboration lead to a more prosperous, just, and peaceful world.”

I was honored to be nominated by John Della Volpe of Social Sphere and the Harvard University Institute of Politics, which is where I met John when I used to moonlight as a correspondent for WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote program in my former life.

My program will take me to Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey over the next five weeks with the following goals:

  • To develop an internationaLinkl network within European sports leadership through which to create cultural change and educational programs on brain trauma in sports.
  • To advance research goals, including developing effective treatment and a cure for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Motor Neuron Disease, and related neurodegenerative diseases.

This is an incredible opportunity to meet face to face with leaders in sports, science and policy, and I am hopeful I can advance our cause while in Europe. I am off to the airport.