Duke University Tackles Head Trauma in Football

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The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)


You want to believe the story you've been told your whole life.

That's why Rebecca Carpenter, daughter of late NFL player and coach Lew Carpenter, said she resisted accepting that football caused her dad's brain damage. She didn't want to believe it.

"If you think about everything as a data point, I have a thousand data points that football is fantastic. Then I get one data point — you might want to look at this," Carpenter said.

When he died, her father had CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who had repeated brain trauma. Common symptoms include memory loss, aggression and depression. The latest research at Boston University's CTE Center shows that head impact, not concussions, causes CTE.

Lew Carpenter played for the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns from 1953 to 1963.

Carpenter said once she acknowledged it was true, she felt betrayed.

"First, I was mad: 'Why are you trying to ruin football?'"

Then she was mad that her dad is dead.

Carpenter is the filmmaker of "Requiem for a Running Back," a documentary that will screen Friday night, Feb. 16, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

On Saturday, Duke Law School will host "Head Trauma In Football," an afternoon of discussions about football culture, the science of head trauma, medical, law and policy issues around it, and sports policymaking. Panelists include former NFL player Harry Carson along with Duke faculty and staff.

Both events are part of a free weekend conference.

Duke economics professor Lori Leachman is also the daughter of a late NFL coach, Lamar Leachman, who was diagnosed with CTE after he died. He was a coach for the Lions and the New York Giants.

Lori Leachman wrote about her Southern football family childhood in a new memoir, "The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen." The forward was written by Carson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member and former Giants player who is part of a discussion on "Football Rules and Sports Policymaking" at the Duke event on Saturday.

Leachman met Carpenter in the closed group, Women of the NFL. Carpenter has since left the group.

Leachman said the NFL is going to have to give more attention to CTE and football because of the decline in youths playing the sport.

"That's their pipeline. If a kid doesn't pick up football by the high school level, there's no playing in college," she said. "If they want to have a pipeline, they're going to have to get behind reform."

High school football participation is down. Youth league coaches and officials told The Chicago Tribune last year that growing concern about head injuries was a big reason for the decline. In 2017, after struggling to field a team due to a lack of interest and growing health and safety concerns, East Chapel Hill High School decided not to play a varsity football schedule.

'I'm not trying to kill football'

For Leachman, it comes down to parents deciding if their kids will play football. She thinks the NFL should be buying football equipment for every high schoolbecause it's their pipeline, and a business expense tax deduction.

"I'm not a real fan of legislating out the wazoo. I'm an economist," she said. "If we put the information out there, people need to make their own choice. For my dad, playing football was all upside. ... It gave him a big life."

She loves football.

"I'm not trying to kill the sport, I'm trying to reinvigorate it with a future," Leachman said. "It's one of the few sports that you can be most excellent [at] but your excellence cannot win it. That's really a beautiful thing, that it requires this sense of teamwork."

In Carpenter's film, "Requiem for a Running Back," she interviews southern California youth football coach Keith Johnson.

"It's not the big hit," he said he learned. "It's all the small hits."

LewCarpenterLionsLew Carpenter when he played for the Lions.

The film also shows an HBO interview with former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, who said if he had an 8-year-old son today, he would not let him play football.

"And my whole life was football," Ditka said. "I think the risk is worse, worse than the reward. I really do."

Carpenter said every screening of "Requiem for a Running Back" has included a discussion, usually with a neurologist and a former NFL player, because people always have questions. They're also very emotional, she said.

She spent two years filming because she really wanted to understand what was going on with CTE; her dad's diagnosis rocked her world and her identity.

"I'm really a football brat through and through," Carpenter said.

Lew Carpenter played for Vince Lombardi and spent much of his coaching career with the Packers. He coached in the NFL from 1971 to 1994.

"I've had so much of my life defined by football. Even with all I know, there are parts of me resistant to [believing CTE caused by football] is true, but it is true," she said. Carpenter said she understands people struggling with accepting the truth, because she was one of them.

"What's being reported is just the tip of the iceberg," Carpenter said. She thinks there is no safer way to play football right now, that changing the rules will only reduce the hits, not stop them.

"I hate this nanny state, that irritates the crap out of me. But I don't think kids should be playing tackle football," she said. "I'm a flag [football only] under 14, period."

Carpenter has a ninth-grade daughter who plays basketball and got a concussion. She said even she had a moment of asking if it was really a concussion and if it was serious.

"I get it. That's all I can say," she said. Her daughter made the playoffs. After the film screening, Carpenter will fly back home to California to catch her daughter's game.

Local high school team being studied

Jason Luck is a research scientist in Duke's biomedical engineering department. He also played football in high school and spent 12 years as a high school football coach. He and biomedical engineering professor Dale Bass are leading a concussion-related study looking at understanding areas of head impact exposure. They're using an ear-sensor device players wear to provide information about how their head moves in practices and games.

This fall will start the fourth year of the study. Luck declined to name the school because the study is ongoing.

They're studying players before, during and after football season and don't know when they'll publish findings yet. Luck said they haven't approached Duke's football team because their study is focused on younger players.

Luck played high school football in the mid-1990s in northern Virginia and Virginia Beach. He keeps his senior year football helmet on a shelf in his office. Luck coached high school football for a year in northern Virginia, then was assistant football coach at Jordan High School in Durham from 1999 to 2009. He said that in the '90s as a player and coach, there was a lot more contact in football practices.

Luck said awareness around CTE and concussions has grown since his playing and early coaching years.

"It's much more clear to everyone of being able to see that 'OK, it looks like something may have happened here, let's pull them out of the game,'" he said.

Luck has daughters who aren't interested in football, but he would let his kids play the sport.

"At least this is me as a parent doing as much as possible to educate myself," he said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

February 14, 2018


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