Experts Discuss CTE Risk for Kids in Contact Sports

The film screening and panel tackled the issue of preventing young athletes from developing the degenerative brain disorder.

Panel sponsored by GWSB and Milken Institute SPH discussed ways to make football safer for young players. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
April 16, 2018

By Briahnna Brown

Without football, Robert Turner II, assistant professor of clinical research and leadership at the George Washington University and former professional athlete, said he would not be where he is today.

Football made college accessible to him as a first-generation student, which later created paths for him to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D.  Dr. Turner also authored the book being released late this summer, “Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete,” through his academic research, which would not have been possible if football hadn’t been available to him.

Still, Dr. Turner acknowledged the importance in making football and the culture surrounding the sport safer for children who play. Doing so, he said, would allow the sport to continue as a tool that adds value to the lives of the players.

"People need to play sports because there's a lot of overall benefits to it, but where we get messed up a lot of times is when parents see their kid as the next so-forth and so-on, no matter what the sport is,” Dr. Turner said. “I think that has long-term negative consequences on the athletes themselves."

Dr. Turner shared his story during the “Sport-Related Brain Trauma Head On” panel on Thursday night, presented by the GW School of Business and the Milken Institute School of Public Health. It focused on long-term exposure to sub-concussive blows with respect to children and contact sports like football, hockey, lacrosse and boxing.

The panel followed a screening of the documentary, “Football’s Hidden Secret: Requiem for a Running Back,” which takes a look at director Rebecca Carpenter’s journey across the country exploring the implications of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players. She began this journey after her father, who played in the NFL, was diagnosed with the degenerative brain disorder after his death.

Ms. Carpenter, like Dr. Turner, criticized the sports industrial complex, adding that it contributes to a “singlemindedness” where sports are seen as the only vehicle to greater opportunity, and parents allow this to shape the entire identity of the children rather than directing children toward other possible academic or artistic vehicles to opportunity.

"There is such a machine built around this. The stakes are so high," Ms. Carpenter said. “How do you walk away from that...when every aspect of your identity has been shaped around it?”

Maryland state Del. Terri Hill (D) spoke during the panel about legislation she introduced that would ban tackling in football and rugby below the high school level in the state. Dr. Hill, who is a practicing plastic surgeon, said that the bill faced backlash from community members who argued that the game would not be football without tackling. She said opponents also said   that the lack of diagnosed concussions means that there is no problem and that there isn’t enough data to prove that sub-concussive blows are a problem.

Dr. Hill looked at the issue differently.

"If we have preliminary evidence that something we're doing may be causing irreparable harm to the developing brains of our children, then we call a moratorium until we find out that we're not damaging them," Dr. Hill said.

Ken Fine, assistant clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at GW and a practicing physician for athletes at all levels, explained that medical professionals still have a lot to learn about the impact sports can have on the brain. He noted that there are sports other than football that still offer the discipline and life lessons that football is praised for teaching children, and modifications can easily be made to contact sports to make them safer for kids because the rules of sports have not been written in stone.

“We make up the sports, we're the ones that make up the rules, football has not been this way since the beginning of time,” Dr. Fine said. “We have the opportunity to look at things scientifically and make changes if necessary."


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