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John Doherty

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As the Super Bowl approaches this week, commissioner Roger Goodell will undoubtedly be giving his annual state of the league address, with questions to follow.

There is at least one he won’t have to answer. The ongoing inquiry through most of last week was, “Will Rob Gronkowski play after suffering a concussion in the AFC Finals?”

The Patriots answered that on Saturday, when they announced that their all-world tight end had returned to practice.

What they didn’t say, what they couldn’t say, was if he really should have.

Goodell is sure to be asked.

A study done at the University of Nebraska and published in October might lead him to answer, “No.” Researchers there found that, while the typical concussion victim seemingly recovers quickly, he displays cognitive responses one-tenth to two-tenths of a second slower than normal a year or longer after injury.

The implication is that the damage from a concussion is permanent and “recovery” is not a result of healing but instead the result of the brain rewiring itself.

Of course, if Goodell were to give such an answer and enforce it, his league would soon run out of players.

Because in the NFL, sooner or later, they all get concussions. A study in this month’s issue of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that in 2016, nearly one quarter (23.4 percent) of CFL players suffered a concussion, but that more than three quarters of them (82.1 percent) kept it to themselves and continued playing.

At least these are professionals, fully informed grown men, being paid for what they do.

Not so with youth athletes, with immature and rapidly developing brains, especially those between ages 10 and 14.

Consequently, the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation launched its “Flag Football Under 14” program just 12 days ago at a New York press conference. Joining CLF co-founders Chris Nowinski and neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, MD were NFL hall-of-famers Harry Carson and Nick Buoniconti. Both expressed regrets for starting football at a young age.

Last week, boosted by CLF, individual lawmakers in New York and Illinois introduced legislation to ban tackle football before age 12 in their respective states. The author in Illinois is Rep. Carol Sente (D-Vernon Hills) and she has named her bill “The Dave Duerson Act to Prevent CTE.” Among those present on Thursday with Sente at a Chicago news conference to announce the bill’s filing, were Nowinski, former Bear Otis Wilson, Tregg Duerson — Dave’s son — and former Chicago sportscaster and Bear Mike Adamle.

They cited several studies that purport to show former college and pro players, who started playing before age 12, have more emotional and cognitive problems later in life than those who waited until later to start playing the game.

There is also a 2016 study out of Wake Forest that found youth football players between the ages of 8 and 13 developed structural changes in their brains after just one season, with the greatest changes among the players who experienced the greatest number of hits to the head.

That mimics the results of ongoing studies at Purdue of high school football and girl soccer players.

Despite the names and the research numbers, the chances of either bill passing this year are slim. Neither has a co-author, which is a key to success in statehouse politics. But the tide is coming and these legislators will be back in future years and in more states.

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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