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It's Undebatable. Football Causes CTE. Now What?

9 Aug, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The Football/Concussion Study: What Sports Event Owners Need to Let Parents Know

Of all the headlines pertaining to concussions and football players, the one in The New York Times was the most succinct: 111 NFL Brains. All But One Had CTE.

The story that broke in late July confirmed what many already understood – and added to parents’ worst fears:  that their children were at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem,” Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and director of the CTE Center at Boston University, noted. And Dr. Bennet Omalu (the focus of the recent blockbuster movie, "Concussion,") has compared youth football to child abuse.

All of which leaves youth sports to answer a lot of questions in a satisfactory manner, or risk losing players to sports with a lower risk factor. So what have national governing bodies and event owners been doing to alleviate the risk? And what should sports planners be ready to explain to parents? Here’s a rundown.

Tackling Strategies: USA Football and USA Rugby have been meeting on an ongoing basis to share best practices – and more importantly, to discuss the safest methods of tackling. A rugby tackle is different; since the sport lacks helmets, it is designed to protect the head. (Arguments have raged for decades that padding and helmets worn by football players provide a false sense of security and encourages the rougher play where head trauma occurs.) In 2015, Ohio State gained attention for using a rugby-style tackle in play – and while it had its share of detractors, there was no doubt it was a safer technique. In fact, CBS Sports noted, “rugby-style tackling has gained momentum, so much so that a company in Seattle devoted to promoting rugby is now trying to enter the marketplace to analyze college football tackles.”

Helmet Safety: There’s money to be made in safety and as a result, football helmets continue to evolve. In 2013, USA TODAY carried an article about the NFL’s $10 million incentive program to design better shock absorbent materials for helmets and other technological advances to protect the brain from concussions.

Other sports have struggled with the helmet dilemma; while boys’ and men’s lacrosse mandate helmets, girls’ and women’s do not – except in Florida. In 2016, two manufacturers began offering lacrosse headgear designed specifically for girls. U.S. Lacrosse, the governing body, also helped adopt standards for headgear for female players who want the protection.

Decreasing Other Concussive Risks: Two years ago, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a player safety campaign that eliminates heading for children 10 and under, and limits the amount of heading in practice for children ages of 11 to 13. In addition, protective headbands were introduced to help soften the blows soccer players might suffer in unintentional head-to-head or head-to-ground collisions.

Concussion Protocols: Almost every sport – particularly those played at a youth level in the U.S. – has developed some type of concussion protocol to create a pathway that involves removing a player from competition and not returning until symptoms have abated, and/or until cleared by a doctor to play. For those seeking to develop protocols, the CDC has created a HEADS UP to Youth Sports section on its website, containing resources for coaches, parents, sports officials and even youth athletes.

Count on some sports to lose participants, though, as parents remove children from what they consider to be high-impact sports, and move them to those where they feel the risk is lower, such as swimming, tennis and track & field. Time isn’t on the side of football in all this, since the older players get, the more they play and the higher their risk of CTE seems to be, according to SGB Media:

Of the 202 brains studied, the group diagnosed 177 with CTE, including 110 of 111 from the NFL players (99 percent); 7 of 8 from the Canadian Football League (88 percent); 9 of 14 semi-professional players (64 percent); 48 of 53 college players (91 percent), and 3 of 14 high school players (21 percent). The brains of former high school players showed only mild pathology, while the majority of college, semi-professional, and professional players showed severe pathology.

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