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In ancient Rome, the great blood sport was sending gladiators to kill each other before giant crowds. In America the leading sport is football, and now Americans are taking a closer look at the safety of the gladiators they send into the ring. Another season is underway, amid headlines about concussions.

Here in Washington, a House committee held a hearing yesterday. And researchers have revealed this about a college player who recently committed suicide: He had a brain disease normally linked with former players who are much older. It's all prompting questions about the dangerous game that Americans love.

Our coverage starts with NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: April 26th, Owen Thomas killed himself, suddenly, impulsively, his family said. According to reports, the burly, all Ivy-League defensive lineman, a captain on the University of Pennsylvania football team, didnt leave a note. He was found with his cell phone still in his pocket.

Thomass parents agreed to let researchers at Boston University study Owens brain. Dr. Robert Cantu is one of the directors at the B.U. research center.

Dr. ROBERT CANTU (Co-Director, Department of Neurosurgery, Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston): He was 21 years old when he died, and his brain showed what I would call early onset chronic traumatic encephalopathy. By that I...

GOLDMAN: CTE is the football concussion disease of the moment. In the past couple of years, the B.U. center has revealed a number of deceased NFL players had CTE. Symptoms include depression, erratic behavior, ultimately - dementia. Some killed themselves or exhibited suicidal behavior. Researchers say its impossible to definitively link Thomass suicide to CTE.

But another aspect of his case was startling. Many of the other CTE victims had a history of repeated, documented football-related concussions. Owen Thomas, who started playing as a nine-year-old, didnt.

Dr. Cantu.

Dr. CANTU: Thousands of sub concussive blows can probably be just as deleterious as a blow at the concussion level.

GOLDMAN: Translation: The mere act of playing football, with its frequent, seemingly innocuous collisions, could be silently wreaking havoc on the brain.

Unidentified Man: Right. Right. Close your distance down. Go. Go. Go.

GOLDMAN: Since 2003, Virginia Tech football games and practices, like this one, have doubled as a brain laboratory for Gunnar Brolinson. Hes the team doctor. Using a system that features small sensors in players helmets and a device on the sideline that receives data from those sensors, Brolinson monitors and records head impacts small to large. He watches a laptop screen. On it, the shape of a human head, a colored arrow appears on the head.

Dr. GUNNAR BROLINSON (Doctor, Virginia TECH Football Team): Im looking at a head blow right now, on one of our players. And I can see that hes had a blow thats on the left lateral side of the head. The length of that arrow corresponds to a blow that is about - let me just bend down here and look at it - its about a 58g head acceleration.

GOLDMAN: Thats a relatively typical football-related acceleration, or impact, says Brolinson. He looks up from the computer screen.

Dr. BROLINSON: Player looks fine after running around.

GOLDMAN: This HIT system, as its called, is expensive, $1,000 a helmet. Those who use it have established average counts for head impacts. Linemen like Owen Thomas collide every play. They log anywhere from a thousand to 1500 head hits per season. But the research, Brolinson says, is very young.

Dr. BROLINSON: We have no idea if that thousand hits is a bad number. And thats the importance of doing this research and carrying it forward.

GOLDMAN: CTE research also is evolving. Not every football player with lots of head knocks gets it. Indeed, the disease may have a genetic component. Still, Owen Thomass case has ratcheted up the discussion about how to reduce the number of football head impacts, big and small.

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, longtime football concussion researcher Kevin Guskiewicz talks to his 10 and 14 year old sons. They both play football.

Dr. KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ (Director, Sports Medicine Research Laboratory, University of North Carolina): I do ask them everyday, over dinner, you know, what they went over today, what they learned today and force them...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GUSKIEWICZ: ...to come up with at least one or two new things that they learned new, in terms of how to protect themselves.

GOLDMAN: Most coaches teach tackling and blocking with the head up; see what you hit is the mantra. The message doesnt always get through. Dr. Guskiewicz did a study that showed one in five college football head impacts happened at the top of the head - alarming to Guskiewicz and to Dave Halstead.

Dr. DAVE HALSTEAD (Southern Impact Research Center): I cannot watch a football game, where a guy does not lead with his head on almost every play. And that cant be allowed.

GOLDMAN: Dave Halstead does lab testing on football helmets; he consults with the NFL and Players Union on helmet performance. Safer headgear isnt the issue, though. The best defense, he says, is teaching the game the right way. To make sure all coaches do that and take it seriously, Halstead suggests a rule against any intentional head first contact.

Then, of course, officials would have to call it when they see it. Getting to that point, says Halstead, will be a challenge.

Mr. HALSTEAD: Because every play thered be 27 flags. Theyre all 15-yard penalties. The fields not big enough.

GOLDMAN: It should be noted that amidst the outcry about brain injury risk, there was a time when football players died from injuries that now result in concussions. Knowledge, equipment, rules have changed to better protect. Theres momentum for a next round of change. For some, it cant come soon enough.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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