Play It Safe Part 2: Brain Injury Research Institute Founder Talks CTE and Risk to Kids playing Football

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 High school football kicks off in the Ohio Valley Thursday night. Steubenville Big Red and Central have their home openers back-to-back at Harding Stadium, but in part two of four of “Play it Safe” 7News has teamed up with Trinity Health System to focus on football at a higher level with the help of concussion expert and attorney, Bob Fitzsimmons who is a founding member of the Brain Injury Research Institute.

Football started as an elitist sport.  A bloodbath at the Ivy League schools each Saturday.

“The biggest advocate (for football) was actually Teddy Roosevelt,” said Fitzsimmons. “He actually came out and said what a great sport this is. He criticized the people who thought it was too dangerous. A lot of people felt that football from its inception, that it was too dangerous and was causing a lot of injures.”

Those injuries in the late 1800s and early 1900s called for a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.  In 1906 JAMA authors released this statement:

“Those injuries are enough to stamp the game as something that must be greatly modified or abandoned. If we are to be considered a civilized people and if our universities are to be considered centers of influence for good,  less our university authorities fear unpopularity, more than they want to do what’s right.”

Some schools, like Duke, Northwestern, and Columbia, listened. They abandoned the sport for several years.  Most schools didn’t, however, and the NFL was formed shortly after.

“It wasn’t ignored, it was just disregarded. Like not significant,” said Fitzsimmons.  “And unfortunately from 1906 up until 1997, football just kept continuing to evolve. They had their critics, but for whatever reason everyone just swept this under the carpet, and nobody really realized how significant these brain injuries were and how devastating they are to the families of people who have played football.”

In 1997, Fitzsimmons represented Hall of Fame member Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Webster. They won a full disability award saying Webster sustained permanent brain injuries from the sport.  Through research, Fitzsimmons and other founding members of the Brain Injury Research Institute, which was highlighted in last year’s Will Smith movie “Concussion,” they discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  In September 2015, researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University announced that they had identified CTE in 96 percent of NFL players that they had examined and in 79 percent of all football players.

“You go to a game like Ohio State or Michigan, and then, the speed and the size goes up. Usually it’s the speed that really changes. Size, anymore, everyone is getting pretty big. Then, you get to the NFL, and now, the defensive ends are as fast as any running back and when they collide, you basically have two small cars hitting each other,” said Trinity Health System sports medicine specialist Dr. Michael A. Scarpone.

“We all know that that’s happened and it continues to happen. The kids get stronger and bigger and faster, and the game gets faster. That’s something that’s going to continue to evolve, so whatever changes we make today, we also have to consider the future. What’s it going to be in 5 to 10 years?” Fitzsimmons added. 

When you strip every thing away, football at this high of a level is about entertainment and money.  Adults players make their own decisions after weighing the risks.  Small children playing tackle football is what worries most.

“There comes a point where we have to make a decision, especially as a parent or as an aunt or an uncle or friends. When we have these young kids out there. do we want to risk our young children?” said Fitzsimmons. “That’s the issue today. Do we allow young kids to play football when there are other types of sports and good activities that can teach a lot of the same qualities?”

Qualities such as teamwork and physical drive.  He says he’d like to see linemen raised into a two-point stance, so their heads are making less contact.  The NFL has made changes: throwing players out of games, fining them for hits deemed unnecessarily rough, but the 2015 season still had the highest rate of concussions to date.

“The changes they’re making are not sufficient to address the problem,” said Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons adds that he and most of the people talking about concussions and the effects they have, are huge football fans and don’t want to abandon the game. They just want to see the NFL make moves to make it safer for players.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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