While it may come as a surprise given Kevin Guskiewicz’s line of work, his three sons all have played football.
And not just Pop Warner or limited-contact kind of football. His oldest son, Jacob, was a senior quarterback at Chapel Hill High last season.
Guskiewicz is co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at North Carolina. The UNC-Chapel Hill professor has researched, treated and worked with injured and concussed athletes at all levels, from North Carolina high schools to the NFL.
Guskiewicz is well-versed in the stories and increased anxiety concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the progressive degenerative disease cited in the deaths of such pro athletes as former NFL linebacker Junior Seau and NHL defenseman Steve Montador. Both were found to have CTE, which may be caused by repeated blows to the head and concussions.
The NFL has settled a concussion lawsuit for $765 million, but the NHL is facing its own legal challenge by former players who claim the league failed to warn them about the risks of repeated blows to the head. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in defending the league, said in May there is no evidence yet conclusively linking concussions and CTE.
Guskiewicz doesn’t dispute the research on CTE but said there is much misinformation about the disease.
“I often caution people because I feel like we’ve put the cart before the horse, because there are a lot of factors that go into neurodegenerative disease,” he said Wednesday. “There are a lot of genetic dispositions people have. … What we need to focus in on are what are all these factors that ultimately mean something with respect to early stage dementia.”
No spike seen
Guskiewicz, who also heads the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at UNC, said some factors can combine for “the perfect storm.“
“You may be only 33 years old, but given your concussion history, given your genetic makeup, given the position you played and estimated overall exposure that you’ve had, it might be smart to think about hanging it up,” he said. “Then there are other people because of those factors and the trajectory they’re on, they think it’s fine to continue to play at age 33, 34.
“CTE is certainly something we need to be aware of. But I worry that you occasionally read these stories about athletes who commit suicide because they got depressed for one reason or another. I could give you 12 different reasons why somebody can get depressed. … We can’t just assume because someone’s had two concussions and played football for six years that they have CTE.”
Guskiewicz, in speaking to the Durham Sports Club, talked of how concussions are like “snowflakes – no two are alike.” He noted any sport can be affected, saying he once treated a cross-country runner who had been hit by a deer.
But Guskiewicz said there has not been a spike in concussions in recent years.
“We do not have a concussion crisis,” he said. “There are no more concussions occurring on our playing fields today than there was five years ago, 15, 25 years ago. The difference is that 10, 15, 20 years ago they went undiagnosed, unmanaged. Kids played through them. They didn’t know they had a concussion.”
Guskiewicz noted President Barack Obama has said if he had sons he would have to “think long and hard before I’d allow them to play football.”
“I’m not defending the sport of football. It’s a sport we need to continue to study and better understand how we can improve safety in it,” Guskiewicz said.
But Guskiewicz, in noting his sons played football, added there were “a lot of positives” in sports, saying, “It teaches leadership and teamwork and it builds character.”
Since 2004, UNC has allowed the use of accelerometers in football helmets, small sensors that register the force of impacts. Of special interest have been the “most dangerous” plays that often cause injuries.
The data revealed what many feared: Kickoff returns were the most likely to cause head injuries. As a member of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, Guskiewicz presented research to the league’s competition committee in 2011.
Kickoffs were moved up 5 yards to the 35-yard line before the 2011 season and players on the kickoff team allowed to take only a 5-yard running start. About 80 percent of NFL kickoffs were returned in 2010; 53.4 percent of the kickoffs were run back in 2011.
“We saw a 42-percent reduction in concussions on that one play in the NFL,” Guskiewicz said. “The NCAA then immediately changed their rule (in 2012) and saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of concussions.”
Guskiewicz said two NFL teams agreed to the use of accelerometers two years ago. Research also continues at the high school level,and Guskiewicz said accelerometers would be used this year at Chapel Hill High, Carrboro High and Northwood High.