HARTFORD, Conn. (TNS) — Joe Linta played football at Yale before making a living as an NFL agent and football coach at Hamden Hall. Yet he wonders if it is worth it for his son to play.
A recent study by Boston University on 202 former football players found much evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The study stopped short of proving the condition, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, is prevalent in all football players. Yet it once again raised concern.
"My son T.J. (a quarterback at Brown) is in a game against Columbia last year and he got whacked hard after someone missed a block," Linta said. "He fell hard and his head whiplashed back into the turf. He wasn't throwing up or anything, but he clearly had a moment of memory loss and dizziness for maybe 45 minutes to an hour. It took him nearly a day to recover.
"As a parent, I would look at that and say (football's) not really worth it and, God forbid, if he has one more (blow) of any significance, I'm going to have the conversation with him about whether it is really worth it.
"He's an example of a kid who is going to go out in the world and have opportunities for jobs. Is it really worth it? But it's something he wants more than anything and I am supportive of him — to an extent."
The study confirmed that the high percentage of brains donated by families of players with multiple concussions or troubling symptoms before they died had CTE.
Football is a collision sport and vicious hits have been glorified. There have been famous, defining hits, such as Chuck Bednarik on Frank Gifford in 1960, or many on Oakland QB Kenny Stabler, whose brain showed Stage 3 CTE (of four stages) after his death. But the ongoing awareness and concern with head injuries continues to shift the landscape. Long gone are the days when ESPN fed clips of brutal hits to its audience in a segment that was called "Jacked Up." ESPN took heat for magnifying such things.
"We used to get that criticism years ago when we did the 'Jacked Up' segment (ended 2006)," ESPN's Mike Soltys said. "But our coverage has evolved as everyone has become even more acutely aware of CTE/head injuries/concussions. We have also been aggressive in covering the story."
High school coaches spend a lot of time teaching proper tackling techniques and schools are required to educate parents and players on the signs and symptoms of concussions.
The NCAA imposed a rule this year that prohibits two-a-day practices, long a staple of the preseason for college football teams. According to a study by the NCAA's Sport Science Institute, 58 percent of concussions that happen in football occur during the preseason.
Teams can still hold two practices a day, but one needs to be a "walkthrough" with no contact, no helmets, no pads and no conditioning activities. Three hours of recovery are required between practices. Teams are still permitted to hold 29 preseason practice sessions, the same as before.
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"I think everybody understands that when you play this game, there are situations where injuries can occur," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "But I think the one thing that we try to do is make sure, as coaches, we're teaching the best ways and the safest ways to play the game. And I think if we do that, and if the players who are playing the game try to do that, then they're going to cut down on some things.
"So if we see a guy that lowers his head to make a tackle, we're going to try to correct him. We're going to tell him."
Edsall says he always makes it a point each summer during camp to show the players the warning label on the back of helmets that in parts says "do not use this helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player." The warning label also says, "Contact in football can results in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent."
Coaches have to be vigilant.
"If you see something, you just get him to the trainers and allow the trainers to do their job," Edsall said.
UConn senior defensive lineman Luke Carrezola said he takes technique seriously.
"I've been playing football all my life," Carrezola said. "There's no chance I regret playing football. It's taught me so much about life in general and all the decisions I make on the football field and off the field. Whatever happens with my future with, you know, the whole CTE and other head injuries, I don't regret playing."
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A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of current and former NCAA student-athletes in all sports is pending before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. A preliminary settlement has been reached that says any NCAA athlete who played before July 15, 2016 "may be entitled to free medical screening and may receive free medical testing, known as 'medical monitoring,' up to two times over the next 50 years." A final hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.
The BU study left "unanswered questions," said lead author Ann McKee, a BU professor of neurology and pathology.
Dr. David Wang of the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford agreed.
"In my opinion, the news was more a headline sensation," he said. "It's the same thing we've all been saying for a long time. Boston University has offered many updates on their study.
"The most difficult thing we are dealing with here is that we don't have a way of measuring it or diagnosing it in a living person. So therefore, we don't know who has it. The reason the numbers are so big in these headlines is (the subjects) are the people who have chosen to donate their brains to research. These are people who had exhibited signs and symptoms of CTE or those who family members thought they had it. Since that's the research pool, you expect the numbers to be high. I believe the data is skewed. We are limited by our inability to diagnose it in living people."
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Wang believes once an athlete becomes involved in football, or any sport where contact to the head is prevalent, the chance of developing CTE gets its start.
"You've already seen it in terms of exposure," Wang said. "One thing I always try to make clear is that CTE is not a concussion nor do the number of concussions one may have predispose one to CTE.
"CTE is likely the result of multiple blows to the head, with or without concussion, which is irrelevant. So what have we seen happen? You've seen in Connecticut high school football and some of the colleges reducing the number of contact practices for less exposure. That certainly makes sense. ... I wouldn't say that an athlete who just plays high school football is a serious risk, but again because we can't diagnose it, we're never sure. ... It is a horrible disease and it should be researched and figured out."
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The NFL has recently seen a number of players in their 20s suddenly retire, making reference to concerns over health.
Former Bills' linebacker A.J. Tarpley retired at 23 after just one season, saying on Instagram, "I suffered the third and fourth concussions of my career this past season and I am walking away from the game I love to preserve my future health."
Former Yale running back Tyler Varga retired after one season with the Colts because of a concussion. "In the end, you just have to weigh the risk vs. reward, do a cost/benefit analysis, and I ultimately decided it wasn't worth the risk," Varga told an Indianapolis radio station.
Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, 26, announced his retirement July 27, just before training camp. A team source said Urschel's decision was linked to the results of the study. Urschel is pursuing his doctorate at MIT.
"The more options a kid has in life, outlets for careers, the more likely they will pay attention to advice," Linta said. "But there will still be a majority of players who disregard that and feel like it's an inherent risk in the career they've chosen. Still, I would not believe that every single guy who plays football has it."
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The CIAC, the governing body of high school sports in Connecticut, still allows two-a-day practices, with stipulations. Neither practice can be more than three hours; total practice time cannot exceed five hours and the five hours cannot be five hours of person-to-person contact. The practices have to be separated by three hours in a cool environment.
"Many of the players in this study were born in the 1950s and '60s, which meant they played in the '70s and '80s when every practice, every day, there was live contact plus two-a- days, which are now banned in college," said Hartford Public coach Harry Bellucci. "Teams now do one quarter of the hitting in practice that they did then."
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With concerns about repetitive hits and starting to play too young, U.S.A. Football, the national governing body for amateur football, has proposed a different youth game because of declining participation and fear about safety. The game would look more like flag football. Each team will have six to nine players instead of 11. The field would be smaller. Kickoffs and punts would be eliminated. And players would start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance.
"With the negative press that football is receiving, coaches cannot use the old methods of coaching because that is what they did when they played," Platt-Meriden coach Jason Bruenn said. "Today's coach has an almost unlimited ability to learn the newest safest techniques with the Internet. I know coaches who are videoing practices where tackling techniques are being taught to prove players are being taught the appropriate techniques. Moving forward, in order to better teach proper skills, more time is needed with players. That's right I said more, not less, time with the athletes. I would love to see an additional week added to the start of football where basic skills like tackling and blocking against dummies could be taught prior to putting on pads."
A lot of what coaches can do seems to come back to proper technique.
"You don't want to run into something with your head. There's no way in the world I would ever teach that," UConn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said. "It's a physical game, it's a tough game played by tough people, but there are some things you can't do. You can't out-tough a hamstring, you can't out-tough a heart attack, and you can't out-tough a concussion."