WASHINGTON – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, has been gaining more and more recognition as fears grow about the progressive, degenerative brain disease developing in athletes, and now, children.
CTE, which has been known to cause memory loss, confusion, aggression, depression and progressive dementia, is mostly found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
The disease is studied at Boston University’s CTE Center, an independent academic research center at BU’s School of Medicine that does extensive research on CTE and was recently given a one million dollar donation by the NFL to put towards CTE studies.
Currently CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem.
The latest push regarding CTE comes from mothers Karen Zegel and Kimberly Archie who have both lost sons to CTE. The difference between their sons and Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first National Football League player to be diagnosed with CTE was that Zegel and Archie’s sons never played in the major leagues – only youth sports.
Zegel and Archie visited members of Congress on Wednesday, March 23 to push for federal regulations on contact sports for children under the age of 14, including banning heading in soccer, tackling in football and rugby and checking in hockey.
Archie, an advocate for rights of child athletes, has been involved in children’s sports rights since 2008. After Archie’s son died when he was 24, she met Zegel and began to unite with other families that had been affected by CTE or brain injuries. Archie said there are now 12 families that have joined the cause.
Athletes in various contact sports are concerned about CTE.
Earlier this year, Brandi Chastain, a soccer star who scored the winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, pledged to donate her brain to concussion research.
Chastain has also urged youth leagues to ban athletes under age 14 from heading the ball.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation has yet to identify CTE in a female athlete, though the foundation has identified nearly 200 cases of the disease, mostly in former football players.
Some players are so afraid of the long-term effects of concussions that they stop playing the game rather than risk it, like Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think [continuing to play the game] is worth the risk.”
Borland retired in 2015 after just one year of playing.
It wasn’t until mid-March of this year that the NFL publicly acknowledged for the first time the link between football and CTE.
The NFL has instituted concussion protocol for any player hit in the head and in the rules instated for the 2015-16 season, it will be a foul to hit a player “forcibly in the head or neck area, or use the crown or hairline parts of the helmet.”
PopWarner, the world’s largest youth football league, made rule changes in 2012 to begin limiting contact during practices. Their website cites the reason as part of their “continuing efforts to provide the safest playing environment for our young athletes, and in light of developing concussion research.”
All the new awareness of CTE is beneficial to research, said Chris Nowinski, Founding Executive Director of the CLF.
“The new awareness is helping research in many ways, from increasing the number of donations to the brain bank to rule changes meant to protect athletes,” said Nowinski.
Nowinski also said that even though some may think children aren’t strong enough to hurt another with force, they are mistaken.
“Children’s heads are nearly full size by the time they are 6 years old, but their mass is closer to 25 percent of an adult, and they have weak necks,” said Nowinski. “This means that when the head of a child is impacted, it takes little energy to accelerate their head and brain quickly, resulting in a bobble-head doll-like effect.”
The concern is not limited to the United States. Shannon Lawder, visiting Washington, DC from London, England with her two children and husband, said she definitely thinks about the safety of her children on the field.
“In England, boys have to play tag rugby [before they play tackle],” said Lawder, whose son is a fourth grader and a rugby player. “I would like if he could just keep playing tag instead of tackle.”
Rugby is similar to American football, though often characterized as being rougher, as it isn’t played with helmets or pads. Rugby is on Archie’s list of sports to make safer.
Archie said she and the other families plan to return next month as well as in the future for continued meetings with lawmakers, and that they are “committed to the long haul” it takes to create a new federal agency regarding children’s safety in sports.
“We don’t want any family to suffer the losses we have because they didn’t know better,” Archie said. “When you know better, you do better.”
The bill language is in the works for what will be called the “Sport Health & Safety Administration Act” and can be supported via petition at change.org.
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