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College Football Player CTE

Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski runs onto the field before a game against Idaho on Sept. 17, 2016, in Pullman, Washington. The family of Hilinski, who died of suicide in January, said the 21-year-old had extensive brain damage that's been linked to concussions from playing football.

NEW ORLEANS — On Friday, as the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s annual meeting was winding up here, I sat down with the organization’s new president, Tory Lindley. The senior associate athletic director for health, safety and performance at Northwestern University, Lindley had started his three-year term just the day before.

According to an NATA press release, Lindley is interested in workplace wellness and youth sports safety.

However, on June 26, as the NATA meeting was just getting started, one sports-related issue was once again dominating the headlines. That day, Sports Illustrated released a story on Tyler Hilinski’s suicide and subsequent autopsy that revealed the Washington State quarterback suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

As I moved about the Morial Convention Center over the next few days, there were courses being offered on numerous topics. Nonetheless, the lectures focusing on head trauma were the best attended, often standing room only.

My first question to Lindley was if he saw CTE as an existential threat to football, the sport where the athletic training profession essentially got its start.

“The word ‘threat’ is an interesting word that you use,” Lindley said. “Because that is a fairly accurate word to use. The reality is, absolutely, that parents are concerned. The unfortunate part is that those three letters are rarely used appropriately in the media and that is a really frustrating thing for health care providers and those who understand the benefit of organized sport and know the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

To help make football and other collision sports such as hockey, lacrosse, wrestling and soccer safer, Lindley said his profession needs to push research in regards to head trauma.

During the conference, athletic trainers and other healthcare professionals presented the results of recent research that shows, despite apparent recovery from concussion’s overt symptoms, a significant cohort of athletes — as many as one-third — then have difficulty performing physical and mental tasks simultaneously. And that is precisely what they are required to do during a contest. This same cohort — perhaps not surprisingly — also happens to suffer an unusually high number of subsequent injuries in the year following a concussion.

The task now is to better identify those individuals at risk and design therapy programs that will hasten recovery and thus prevent the subsequent injuries. Vestibular (balance) therapy is among the techniques that hold promise.

While post-concussion management remains a major focus, the long-term consequences of repeated head trauma, specifically CTE, are the greater concern.

Lindley believes that athletic trainers are uniquely positioned to address this concern.

One such athletic trainer is Larry Leverenz of the Purdue Neurotrauma Group, who was in attendance here. He had spoken in Munster last month at a sports medicine conference sponsored by Community Hospital. During that presentation, Leverenz said he and his colleagues were closing in on determining a threshold of hits to the head per season — in football and soccer — above which there are likely to be long-term consequences and below which there are not.

Recognizing that fewer hits — and spacing them out — are better, the Illinois High School Association last month announced rule changes for football, which are recommended for 2018 but will be mandatory in 2019.

Essentially, players will be limited to participating in no more than two games in a week (Friday thru Thursday), prohibited from playing games on consecutive days and prohibited from hitting in practice the day after playing in a game.

Some steps in the right direction for football, at least in Illinois.

However, Lindley’s concerns go far beyond the gridiron.

“Our opportunity is to help continue to push for safer play across all the high-risk sports … to help educate coaches to practice (their) sport safer and smarter,” he said.

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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