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What Larry Fedora got right about CTE, and what he did really wrong

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A lack of scientific proof about football and CTE isn’t an excuse to keep the sport in the past.

California v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

fIf anyone in North Carolina’s football program wants to look into CTE research and its connection to football, they need only step out of their team facility and take a seven-minute walk to the Stallings Evans Sports Medicine Center on campus. Housed there is a research center devoted to sports-related traumatic brain injury, dedicated to a young man named Matthew Gfeller, who died from traumatic injury on the football field.

During the ACC’s media days on Wednesday, UNC head coach Larry Fedora made headlines for suggesting that safety-related changes to the sport could bring on the decline of America. He interpreted them as an attack.

Fedora later elaborated on what he meant.

“I’m not sure that anything is proven, that football itself causes it. Now we do know, from what my understanding is, that repeated blows to the head cause [CTE], so I’m assuming that every sport that you have, football included, could be a problem with that. As long as you’ve got any kind of contact, you could have that. That does not diminish the fact that the game is still safer than it’s ever been in the history of the game, because we continue to tweak the game to try to make it safer for our players.”

Many, including Fedora’s boss, were taken aback.

Kevin Guskiewicz, a doctor at North Carolina who founded the Gfeller Institute and researches head injuries, was surprised, too.

When SB Nation reached out to members of the Gfeller Institute faculty for comment, the center sent this statement:

The Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has studied concussions in football (and other sports) for more than two decades. Our work has a long history of support from UNC Athletics. The football program has routinely participated in our research studies, and the data we’ve collected has led to evidence-based refinements in football rules we believe enhance player safety without detracting from the action football fans seek.

The debate surrounding football safety is a heated topic. The science of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) remains in its infancy. Far more is unknown about CTE than is known. We believe participating in football carries some risk, but that these risks are mitigated more today than ever before by advances in equipment, concussion knowledge, rule changes, medical management and policies adopted by institutions and governing bodies to protect the safety and welfare of student-athletes.

Work done by Guskiewicz and others, back in 2005, found that retired NFL players faced a 37 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease than males of the same age, and concluded that repeated concussions “significantly boosted” the chance that retired players would suffer different types of cognitive impairment later in life. Of the 2,552 players who returned surveys, 60 percent said they received at least one concussion during their careers.

As the research on CTE in sports advances, the goalposts have moved on how early signs of the disease can surface. It can be at its most advanced stage by the time a former football player is 27. Former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski was diagnosed with the first stage of CTE after he committed suicide at 21. But researchers can’t determine whether a living person has CTE. The diagnosis has to come after a player dies.

Fedora’s first sin was probably expressing something in public that coaches say often among themselves. In private, they wonder how big an issue CTE is in their sport.

A professor at Boston University agrees with UNC’s head man that there still isn’t scientific proof of a link between football and CTE.

“I totally agree with him,” says Peter Cummings, a neuropathologist and associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine. “Association is not causation. CTE has also been found in individuals not exposed to contact sports. It’s not a settled matter by any means. And football is safer today than it has ever been. In fact, I would argue that no other sport has made a more radical transformation in response to safety concerns than football. His comments reflect the reality of the scientific uncertainty surrounding CTE.”

But — absent the stuff about America’s possible downfall — are comments made by Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson any better than what Fedora said?

Clawson offered a similar nothing statement. There are plenty of things we “can’t ignore” in society, but that doesn’t mean he offered a detailed plan or even a single policy suggestion to aid player safety. Fedora may have actually offered a more scientifically backed statement by saying that there’s no proven link between sport and disease.

But we don’t need research or any scientific method to say that hits to the head are bad. That’s common sense, and it’s why movement toward safer tackling styles and even the dreaded targeting rule have roots in the right place.

Internalizing change as an attack is backward, and hiding behind a lack of proof as an excuse to not move the game forward in regards to player safety is wrong. Football is a cultural touchstone, but it is laughable to think that the people trying to evolve the sport will take it (or the country) down.

Fedora’s conflation of tweaks to the game and the decline of Western civilization is ridiculous, but his caution in unequivocally linking the disease to the game has backing from science.