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A Dangerous Game: How will head injuries affect football's future?

POSTED: July 14, 2012 10:32 p.m.

Owen Thomas loved football. And his mother, Kathy Brearley, loved that he loved it.

He excelled at the sport, playing from the time he was in fourth grade until he turned his talents into a college scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, Brearley wonders if the sport that provided so much for her son may have played a part in taking away even more.

In April 2010, after a junior season in which he had been elected a captain by his teammates, Thomas committed suicide in his college dorm room.

In the wake of the tragedy, teammates, coaches and family members were left searching for answers that weren’t there.

“Suicide is such a complex thing, isn’t it?” Brearley asked. “When he killed himself, it was just amazing to me. He was such a happy person and loved by his teammates. I tried to think of everything that might have driven somebody to that.

“Maybe he had a gambling debt or an affair, something that would make him so ashamed that it might drive him to that. I thought it had to be something like that, or I thought it would be something medical.”

But she never considered the latter to be a real factor, because Thomas had never been diagnosed with a concussion or had any other mental health issues to speak of.

But when researchers from Boston University requested an autopsy of his brain and subsequently determined that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, she wasn’t surprised.

“I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said.

CTE, also called dementia pugilistica, affects the brain in many ways, often leading to poor decision-making, impaired memory, depression and even suicidal thinking.

Thomas was a lineman, a position that takes as many as 1,000 hits to the head per season, which, neurologists have suggested, can be deceptively severe.

“It shows us that you don’t need to have had known or reported concussions to develop this brain disease,” Dr. Robert Stern, co-director of the team that performed Thomas’ autopsy, told CNN in 2010. “It really shows us that those multiple, repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head that are experienced by so many athletes in many different sports can bring on the beginnings of this disease.”

Similar cases have been documented. The murder-suicide committed by professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who it was determined also suffered from a severe case of CTE, dominated headlines in 2007. Former NFL Pro Bowler Dave Duerson also suffered from an advanced case of CTE. He committed suicide in February of last year.

The death of former San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau in May brought the questions back to the forefront.

Tissues from Seau’s brain were released for testing on Thursday to see if he, too, suffered from the disease.

The response from fans and players has been diverse. Many understand the dangers of the sport, but suggest it’s a risk players have the right to take. Some, like former St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, suggest they would prefer if their sons didn’t play football at all.

Whatever the case, an inherently dangerous culture persists, from the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal to the 1,000-plus former players who are now suing the NFL for allegedly hiding the dangerous effects of concussions.

And the question arises: Is football sick? Does it suffer from a culture that, not unlike the brain disease found in these players, hides beneath the surface, undetectable until it’s too late?

Ultimately, can football survive in its current form? And, more importantly, should it?

Education and awareness

Jay Shoop, head athletic trainer at Georgia Tech, has spent 43 seasons in college football. Ron Courson, his counterpart at the University of Georgia, has been with the Bulldogs since 1995.

Working in the medical field with their respective programs, they are well versed in the dangers of the sport.

Neither, however, had any real reservations when it came time to allow their sons to play football.

“Football’s a great sport,” Courson said. “I have four children. They’re all athletes, and I let my boys play football. It’s a risk, but you just have to be aware.”

North Hall coach Bob Christmas, who has coached four of his sons over the years, shared a similar opinion, stating that so much life experience can be gained from the sport.

“The benefits that my kids derived from playing football far outweigh the risks,” he said. “Every time you get in an automobile, you face a bigger risk than walking out on the practice field. In general, just living life presents risks. But the benefits in this game outweigh those risks.”

It’s a common opinion among and outside the ranks of football players and officials that, despite the risks, football’s net impact is generally positive. It teaches discipline and teamwork, among other things, Christmas said, and can ultimately improve the quality of players’ lives down the road.

They agree, however, that there are important steps parents, coaches and athletes should take when making the decision to play.

“The first thing in safety is knowing how to recognize the concussion,” Courson said. “We educate everyone on the symptoms. When you sprain your ankle, I can see you limp. I can’t see dizziness or a headache, so we have to make our players aware of the symptoms to watch out for.”

Gainesville coach Bruce Miller echoed those words.

“Education, education, education,” he said. “We want to teach them the things they need to know. Safety is more important than anything out there. We want to be competitive, but we want to be safe.”

Changes on the horizon?

Part of awareness is knowing when and what to change when the situation warrants.

While many agree that the sport is not too much of a risk, they also have seen changes to the game, and expect to see more.

“We’ve already seen a lot of changes happening in the last few years, certainly at the varsity and NFL levels,” said Stefan Duma, head of the Virginia Tech School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. “There’s less focus on the high-impact drills in practice. Now we’re starting to focus more at the youth level, where people originally didn’t think the kids could hit that hard.”

Duma has overseen tests on helmet safety and impact from tackles in youth football.

In response to his study, which was done in conjunction with Wake Forest University, Pop Warner football has instituted new rules limiting full contact to a third of all practice time. Other mandates include no full-speed contact drills with children lined up more than 3 yards apart.

“We knew kids can get concussions,” said Jon Butler, the executive director of Pop Warner. “As soon as we found out about those studies, we took steps to amend our rules. We’re still in the very early stages of finding out about all this stuff, but as we learn more, if other rule changes seem appropriate, we won’t hesitate to do it.”

Butler said that he is often asked why the league doesn’t just do away with tackling.

“My response to that has always been that if we did that, 90-95 percent of our membership would find another league that allows tackling,” he said. “Kids play flag football for a year or two and then want their pads.

“As a parent myself, at some point you almost wish you could wrap your child in bubble wrap. But it doesn’t work that way. No matter the activity, kids can get hurt.”

The Ivy League, which Owen Thomas’ University of Pennsylvania competes in, also made changes to its league policy recently.

Full-contact practices were reduced to two per week and, in the preseason, there is only one day in which pads can be used in both sessions of a two-a-day. Ivy League executive director Robin Harris added that her administration has increased penalties for illegal helmet-to-head tackles, always erring on the side of caution.

“If the behavior is questionable and it may cross the line, they’re going to be suspended,” she said. “And the number of hits I review has been going down each year. I like to think the word is getting out and coaches are focusing on proper technique.”

There have been in-game rule changes as well, such as shortening the kickoff at both the NFL and college levels to limit high-speed collisions.

And while the sport may face more changes, neither Miller nor Harris expect anything drastic.

“It’s always been just small changes over time,” Miller said. “Every time one happens, we question how it will affect the game, and then it ends up being a very small factor.”

“We aren’t taking the contact out of the game,” Harris added. “It frustrates me to hear some people say that, like the NFL is trying to change the nature of football with its changes. We aren’t trying to change the sport. We’re trying to change how people hit and change the risk of the long-term head injuries.”

An ongoing process

No matter what the future holds for the sport, one thing is certain: There will always be some risk.

“You aren’t going to prevent all concussions,” Christmas said. “Just like you won’t eliminate other injuries. But I think you can teach good technique so that you can keep the head and neck as safe as you possibly can.”

And while much has been learned, more information is still out there to be gained.

“There has been improvement,” Duma said. “The performance of helmets over the last 10, 20 or 30 years — manufacturers at least have a quantified reason to provide better helmets now.”

Courson spoke similarly about the research into CTE.

“You look at CTE, and there’s still a lot to learn about that,” he said. “We still don’t know to what extent that affects an individual, so there is a lot more that needs to come out in that area.

“It requires a lot more research, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Kathy Brearley sees the progress and hopes it will continue.

“I remember after Owen died, I just wished that someone had told me about all this,” she said. “The subject is just so complex. And sadly, the way we find out is through studying brains of those who have passed away.

“My husband thinks that people who are smart will eventually start not letting their kids play football at all, but I think the game is just so loved and loved by the people that play it. It will change gradually and slowly. But the most important thing I can say to anybody is to just be aware. Watch closely. You have to think about that kind of stuff.”


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