President Obama said Thursday that he may have suffered a mild concussion more than once while playing football as a child, recalling a "ringing sensation" in his head that he simply shook off.
Four decades later, during a White House conference on the rising problem of traumatic brain injury in sports, he used the story to call upon parents, coaches and fans to stop expecting athletes to "suck it up."
"There were a couple of times where I'm sure that that ringing sensation in my head and the need to sit down for a while might have been a mild concussion," Obama said. "At the time you didn't think anything of it. The awareness is improved today, but not by much."
Now, Obama said, Americans need to change the sports culture to take such injuries more seriously.
"Identifying a concussion and being able to self-diagnose that this is something that I need to take care of doesn't make you weak," he said. "It means you're strong."
Obama has spoken off the cuff about head injuries in sports before, telling an interviewer last year that if he had a son, he would think "long and hard" before letting him play football.
But as new statistics and shocking anecdotal evidence came to light over the last couple of years, Obama began consulting with fellow football fans on his staff about whether they had a responsibility to help raise consciousness.
The result was Thursday's conference, where participants revealed monetary commitments to research. The NCAA and the Department of Defense are launching a $30-million fund to improve concussion safety practices in college sports and the military. The NFL has pledged $25 million over the next three years for youth sports safety.
Obama, an outspoken Chicago Bears fan, said he intended to keep shining a spotlight on a problem that touches everyone from Little League players to the country's most admired military and sports heroes.
After he moved from Indonesia to live with his grandparents in Hawaii as a child, football helped him fit in with peers, Obama has said. In his autobiography, he wrote that he had "no idea how to throw a football in a spiral or balance on a skateboard," pronouncing it "a 10-year-old's nightmare." Later, though, he began to feel accepted in part because he learned how to "toss a wobbly football around."
On Thursday, Obama said sports remained a crucial part of the American identity.
"Sports teach us about teamwork and hard work and what it takes to succeed, not just on the field but in life," he said. "I learned so many lessons playing sports that I carry on to this day, even to the presidency." Obama frequently uses baseball and football metaphors to describe his administration's foreign policy goals, such as hitting "singles" and "doubles," or "blocking and tackling."
The cultural importance of sports is all the more reason, he argued, to try to make games safer for children and professionals alike.
"Sports are vital to this country, and it's a responsibility for us to make sure that young, talented kids … are able to participate as safely as possible and that we are doing our job, both as parents and school administrators, coaches, to look after them the way they need to be looked after," Obama said. "That's job No. 1."