STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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.
INSKEEP: Our coverage starts with NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN: Thomas's parents agreed to let researchers at Boston University study Owen's brain. Dr. Robert Cantu is one of the directors at the B.U. research center.
ROBERT CANTU: 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: Dr. Cantu.
CANTU: Thousands of sub concussive blows can probably be just as deleterious as a blow at the concussion level.
GOLDMAN: 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. He's the team doctor. Using a system that features small sensors in player's 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.
GUNNAR BROLINSON: I'm looking at a head blow right now, on one of our players. And I can see that he's had a blow that's 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 - it's about a 58g head acceleration.
GOLDMAN: That's a relatively typical football-related acceleration, or impact, says Brolinson. He looks up from the computer screen.
BROLINSON: Player looks fine after running around.
GOLDMAN: This HIT system, as it's 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.
BROLINSON: We have no idea if that thousand hits is a bad number. And that's the importance of doing this research and carrying it forward.
GOLDMAN: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, longtime football concussion researcher Kevin Guskiewicz talks to his 10 and 14 year old sons. They both play football.
KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ: I do ask them everyday, over dinner, you know, what they went over today, what they learned today and force them...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
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 doesn't 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.
DAVE HALSTEAD: I cannot watch a football game, where a guy does not lead with his head on almost every play. And that can't be allowed.
GOLDMAN: Then, of course, officials would have to call it when they see it. Getting to that point, says Halstead, will be a challenge.
HALSTEAD: Because every play there'd be 27 flags. They're all 15-yard penalties. The field's not big enough.
GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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