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Capital Chatter: Courtney takes on football

Oregon Senate president considers legislation to regulate football and other sports.

Peter Courtney was on a roll.

The Oregon Senate president had fretted over the Gov. Kate Brown's administration being slow to request firefighting money from the Legislature. He'd fretted about the "cavalier attitude" of his counterparts in the Oregon House as they prepare for next year's legislative session. He'd fretted about the nation's increased polarization making its way into Oregon politics. He'd fretted that The Big One would cause the Oregon Capitol to collapse atop visiting schoolchildren.

And now he was agonizing about whether "collision sports" such as football, soccer and hockey remain viable for Oregon youth.

"It's pretty frightening. These kids are getting their bell rung very early in life, and I wonder if it's more to impress coaches, and parents, than taking care of the kids," Courtney said in a wide-ranging interview.

The Salem Democrat exudes sports. He visited Steve Prefontaine's family home in Coos Bay. He coached youth sports. He announced Western Oregon University basketball games. He played football in the hills of West Virginia, has season tickets for WOU football games and watches football on TV. He treats politics as a team sport.

But the research on cumulative brain injuries has him worried — especially the brain autopsy performed on former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide this year while serving a life sentence for murder. Researchers at Boston University — coincidentally, where Courtney earned his law degree — found the 27-year-old Hernandez had severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Repeated blows to the head can cause CTE. The degenerative condition can contribute to depression, paranoia, difficulty in controlling impulses and, eventually, memory loss and confusion. That a relatively young person such as Hernandez could have such severe CTE was stunning but enlightening.

"I just became aware of how much damage is being done to the brain by these hits," Courtney told me.

So in the past few months, Courtney has reconsidered his support for youth playing collision sports. He recently had "a very painful discussion" with fellow ex-football player Dr. Joe Robertson, the president of Oregon Health & Science University, about the latest research regarding cumulative brain damage from sports.

"I just don't know if there's enough protection out there, and also I don't know if parents are being made aware of this in a way that they have to sign off officially," Courtney said. "I think we've reached the point that we have to start to question whether or not we have the equipment necessary to protect the human head under certain circumstances in collision sports."

That leaves Courtney mulling whether to propose regulatory legislation next year, despite the controversy that would ensue. At the minimum, he said, he is considering mandatory educational sessions for athletes' parents on how sports collisions affect the developing brains of youth. After hearing that information directly from medical professionals — not coaches or administrators, Courtney emphasized — parents then would decide whether to let their kids play.

If "a child getting hit in the head means their lives will be destroyed very early in life in all kinds of ways, including death, I would say that the public policymakers, working with the parents and coaches, have a profound responsibility," he said. "The bottom line is we can't expose these kids to these kinds of brain damages."

• An anti-Courtney campaign: National Popular Vote Inc. has launched an "Enough Courtney" campaign with social-media and TV ads in his Senate district, which includes part of Salem, Gervais and Woodburn. The organization accuses Courtney of singlehandedly stopping the Oregon Legislature from passing the National Popular Vote bill.

That is true, more or less.

National Popular Vote is a way to get around the Electoral College without amending the U.S. Constitution. It "would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," the organization said in a press release.

Eleven states, representing 165 electoral votes, have adopted National Popular Vote. It cannot take effect until enacted by additional states, ones representing at least 105 more electoral votes. Together, those states would provide the 270 electoral votes needed by a candidate to officially win the presidency in the Electoral College.

The Oregon House passed the bill in 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017, only to see it die in the Senate. This year, Courtney said he'd let the bill proceed if it were amended to put the issue before voters. Supporters refused.

But his opposition is not totally single-handed. His strong stance means other legislators don't have to go on the record opposing National Popular Vote. The Electoral College gives more power to small states such as Oregon.

• And his bridge gets an award: The American Public Works Association's Oregon Chapter chose Salem's Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge as the 2017 project of the year in the category of structures costing $5 million to $25 million.

The popular pedestrian and bicycle bridge connects two urban parks across a Willamette River slough. The Salem City Council named the bridge after Courtney, a former city councilor.

Dick Hughes has been covering Oregon politics since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms or @DickHughes on Twitter.