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As Awareness Increases, Solutions Near for Football's Concussion Issue

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What we don't know can hurt us, sometimes fatally.

So it is encouraging to see a continued increase in dialogue on concussions in football. I recently had the opportunity to add to this dialogue, completing a project on college football concussions for the University Daily Kansan.

James Holt, a former KU linebacker and current San Diego Charger, bemoaned recent National Football League measures to crack down on helmet-to-helmet contact.

Former KU coach Don Fambrough called today's sizable helmets "weapons" and expressed frustration at increased penalties slowing down games.

Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz from the University of North Carolina explained that, using a system that records head impacts from accelerometers placed in football helmets, he found that the average starter in college football experiences between 850 to 1,050 hits to the head each season.

And the Rev. Tom Thomas and the Rev. Kathy Brearly talked about how difficult it was to celebrate Thanksgiving without their son, Owen Thomas, who took his life in April. Owen was 21 years old and a captain on Penn's football team. He was found to have youngest case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) appearing in a football player's brain. CTE is caused by repetitive head trauma and is a brain disease linked to severe brain degeneration and a loss of impulse control.

While we've seen stories like University of Texas running back Tre' Newton giving up the sport after several tough concussions, Owen's parents said he never reported a concussion or even complained of headaches during his football career.

The Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) used by Guskiewicz and increasingly at other universities has helped explain why the sport can produce accumulative effects seemingly without notice.

Let's say the system's accelerometers record two concussions and one occurs after an impact twice the force of the other. Guskiewicz said he found the same severity of symptoms at all ranges of impacts. KU's director of sports medicine also told me many of the head injuries he's seen have occurred as subtly as a player's head bouncing off the turf.

Only recently have we known with greater detail the effects the sport has on those that play it.
Sure, we've known of cases like Mike Webster's, but the depth of the issue and its reach across age groups is finally coming to light.

Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock interestingly compared the attention to football concussions to when society began learning cigarettes were as harmful as they are.

This whole awakening about the dangers of football must be what it was like when America figured out cigarettes killed. What's more pervasive in America, the NFL in 2010 or Marlboro in 1950? Maybe NFL helmets will eventually come with a warning label from the surgeon general.

Warning: Football kills.

It's true. Will that knowledge harm the popularity of the game?

We don't yet know the answer to that question. Many still celebrate and upload to YouTube videos of hellacious hits. It's part of the game. It's gritty.

What happens if those hits go away? If kickoffs are eliminated? If equipment significantly altered? If the game we grew up with (and many of us loved) is seismically shifted?

I say if any or all of the above occur in the name of player safety and long term health, we must stand and applaud.

We must direct that applause right now to all that are working to learn more about the prevention and treatment of concussions. We must celebrate those that challenge the factors inherent in the sport that produce devastating consequences.

We learned on Dec. 2, that a high school player from Spring Hill, Kan. who died after collapsing on the field in October, suffered a rebleed of a brain injury from earlier in the season. Could this injury be prevented in the future?

Tom Thomas said at the beginning of the year, when a player was hit hard he noticed that announcers said the player "had his bell rung." They don't use that term anymore, he said.

What he means is we'll never look at hits to the head in football the same again. That, in itself, is progress.

On a side note, I cannot thank the Thomas family enough for opening up about such a tough subject and during a difficult time of year for them.

I'll close with an urging for fans, parents and all interested to follow the work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who has covered the hell out of this issue. Malcolm Gladwell's Oct. 2009 piece in the New Yorker is also must-read material.

I began my project wondering if it was the sport itself that needed to go in order for significant change. I still don't know that answer. But after seeing the work done by many, many knowledgeable and passionate people, I am a little more optimistic.

Talking and reading about it helps, too.

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