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Weeks after Ivy League football coaches unanimously voted to prohibit regular-season full tackle practices, the National Football League for the first time acknowledged the link between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by continued trauma to the brain.
In light of the NFL's recent admission, experts praised the proposal by Ivy League coaches to limit tackling in practices.
Christopher J. Nowinski ’00, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, and the current executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, praised the Ivy League’s potential rule change, saying the move sets a good example for the rest of college sports.
“I think it absolutely sends a strong message now that we understand the risks of competitive brain trauma,” Nowinski said. “For [Harvard football coach Tim Murphy] to help lead that discussion is a real testament to his desire to make the game as safe as possible."
Nowinski more generally said Harvard has always taken the issue of concussions in football seriously, and praised the University for its commitment to player safety.
The NFL's acknowledgement at a congressional hearing, made by the league's senior vice president, Jeffrey B. Miller, was a significant step in the right direction toward awareness of the risks of playing football according to Ann McKee, an investigator at the CTE Center at Boston University.
“We’re hoping that there is large scale recognition that CTE is a risk when playing football,” McKee said.
McKee added that evidence shows cutting down on tackling would have positive effects for athletes’ health.
“All our evidence is pointing to the fact that subconcussive hits, these repetitive hits that occur routinely on every play of the game, and the cumulative exposure to those subconcussive hits, is what really triggers CTE and some of the other long-term consequences,” McKee said. “By eliminating any of the exposure, reducing hits in practice, reducing the number of games played, the time in games, all of those things will help reduce the long term consequences.”
McKee said it was especially important to be mindful of the risks of football for amateur athletes in additional to NFL players.
“Certainly, our work has identified CTE in many professional football players, but we’re also seeing it in a very high percentage of college players,” McKee said. “We’ve looked at the brains of 55 college players now, and 45 of them have had CTE.”
For younger players, McKee said the risk of head injuries was even more substantial than for players in the NFL.
“Surprisingly, the earlier you play, playing football is associated with more severe cognitive decline and changes in [brain scans],” McKee said. “It suggests that the younger brain is actually more susceptible to injury.”
She attributed this distinction to various physical differences between professionals and lower level players.
“Amateur athletes usually do not have the physical musculature that advanced athletes have, they don’t have the coordination, or the skill set, so they’re going to be more susceptible to these injuries,” McKee said.
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