Amid Spotlight On Concussions, New Efforts To Improve Gear, Tackling

In 2005, the journal Neurosurgery published a paper by forensic neuropatholigist Bennet Omalu and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh that linked a neurodegenerative disease to repetitive brain trauma. Omalu was the first researcher to diagnose the disease—known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE—in a former National Football League player. Actor Will Smith portrays Omalu in the film “Concussion,” which opened on Christmas Day.

In the decade since Omalu’s groundbreaking paper, the NFL, its players, and fans have been forced to come to terms with concussions and the potentially lifelong—or even life-ending—consequences that stem from them. The focus has spurred a wave of new research on how to prevent, diagnose, and treat brain injuries throughout the sports world, including in Wisconsin.

The NFL responded to Omalu’s research in part by forming a concussion committee and conducting its own study on football and brain injuries that was dismissive of the long-term risks. Ira Casson, a neurologist who helped lead the study and co-chaired the committee at the time, told HBO’s Real Sports in May 2007 that among NFL players, there was no evidence linking multiple head injuries and long-term neurodegenerative diseases like CTE and early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Later that year, the league issued a two-page pamphlet that sought to answer questions current and former players might have had about concussions.

“Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly,” according to the document.

The NFL, a television ratings behemoth whose revenues totaled about $12 billion last season, was perhaps hoping that releasing the pamphlet would put the dispute to rest. But it was in fact only the beginning of what’s become a protracted battle with Omalu and other scientists, as well as the families of former players afflicted with early-onset dementia.

In April, a federal judge approved the NFL’s plan to settle thousands of concussion-related lawsuits brought by ex-players. The settlement is estimated to cost the league about $1 billion over 65 years, though some of the players have appealed in hopes of getting a larger amount.

But you don’t need to follow court cases to see that head injuries pose a threat to the NFL—it’s apparent just from watching the action on the field. The league has tweaked several rules, including ones pertaining to kickoff plays and hits to ball carriers, in an attempt to make violent collisions—especially those involving helmet-to-helmet contact—less frequent.

Football is arguably America’s new national pastime, which makes brain injuries a national concern, from Hollywood studios to the NFL’s Park Avenue headquarters in Manhattan. The league is not the only organization that’s set out to reduce the number of concussions sustained in contact sports. In Wisconsin, scientists are researching head injuries, and developing new technology they say could make football a safer sport at all levels of play.

Tackling The Problem

Greg Landry has been around football for much of his life.

He played collegiately at Butler University, and later served as a physician for athletic teams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1984 until earlier this year. During that period, he was assigned to the Badgers football team for 25 seasons.

When he watches college football these days, he sees marked differences in how the game is played from decades ago.

“One of the things that I’ve been disturbed about is that the game has changed,” Landry says. “People didn’t tackle then like they do now. They didn’t lead with the head. They didn’t launch themselves.”

In October, Landry co-authored a paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics that addressed, among other things, the relationship between tackling and head injuries in youth football. One finding: “Severe and catastrophic injuries, particularly those of the head and neck, are associated with tackling, often when improper and illegal technique…is used.”

That conclusion probably didn’t come as a news flash to USA Football, a … Next Page »

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Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jbuchanan@xconomy.com Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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