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UNC Coach Larry Fedora criticized after questioning football’s link with CTE

UNC Coach Larry Fedora criticized after questioning football’s link with CTE

North Carolina football Coach Larry Fedora answers questions Wednesday during a news conference at the ACC media day in Charlotte. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

North Carolina football Coach Larry Fedora spent Wednesday explaining and reexplaining his views on the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. At times, his perspective seemed to contradict growing medical consensus about football’s relationship to the degenerative brain illness.

“I don’t think it’s been proven that the game of football causes CTE,” Fedora, who is heading into his ninth season in Chapel Hill, told reporters Wednesday at the ACC’s media days in Charlotte. “We don’t really know that. Are there chances for concussions? Of course. There are collisions. But the game is safer than it’s ever been.”

Fedora also claimed football was “under attack,” and suggested “our country will go down, too,” as youth football participation continues to drop. And while Fedora later modified his comments — suggesting that repeated blows cause CTE, which could be an issue in any sport — his comments almost immediately caused a stir.

“I’m not sure that anything has proven that football itself causes it,” Fedora told reporters later Wednesday. “Now we do know from what my understand is that repeated blows to the head do cause it, so every sport that you have, football included, could be a problem with that, right? 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.”

USA Today columnist Dan Wolken quickly published an opinion article calling for Fedora’s ouster “if he can’t acknowledge dangers of CTE.”

“If Fedora actually believes what he said,” Wolken wrote, “he’s too dumb to coach college football and should be fired immediately.”

Semantically, Fedora’s remarks are true, says Chris Nowinski, chief executive of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. But football is among the most popular American sports with repeated blows to the head are common.

“It appears football and boxing and rugby and ice hockey can all cause CTE,” Nowinski said. “Football is not unique in that sense.”

But the NFL conceded two years ago a connection between football and CTE. For a college football coach to still be skeptical of that link is dangerous, Nowinski said, because of the influence college coaches could have over their peers at the youth and high school levels.

A Stanford bioengineering laboratory measured the average football hit, such as a tackling a ball carrier or blocking at the line of scrimmage, is roughly equivalent in terms of force on the body to driving a car into a brick wall at 30 mph. And players can take as many as 60-some hits in a game, researchers found.

But Fedora said he is not inclined to believe every CTE study, even as the majority of them have presented similar conclusions that link repeated blows to the head endured during football games to long-term negative health impacts.

“Depends on the study,” he said. “I believe some of the studies and there’s some of them that I don’t. That’s why you do studies I think.”

Fedora’s remarks come as college football gets set to introduce more rule changes geared at player safety, most notably, allowing kickoff returns to field a ball with a fair catch signal between the 25-yard line and goal line and give the offense the ball at the 25-yard line.

They also come close to a year after a study released by Boston University’s School of Medicine and VA Boston Healthcare System found CTE in 87 percent of football players’ brains studied postmortem.

Fedora argued Wednesday that the people attacking football have abused the scientific findings to harm the game.

“If you look at what’s going on around the game of football it’s constantly someone attacking the game about it’s not safe or the risks are too big to play the game,” he said. “Well, I’ve said this before. Educating the players so they understand the risks involved in playing the game is the most important thing to do so they can make decisions on whether or not the game is worth it to them.”

High school football enrollment was down 4.5 percent over the past decade as of the fall of 2016, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Youth levels of football, leagues high schools lean on as feeder systems, saw a nearly 30 percent drop in participation between 2008 and 2013, according to data collected by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Industry experts associate that drop with increased knowledge of the risks of head trauma and the rising cost to participate in youth sports.

“That’s what I’m talking about when I say I worry about the future of the game,” Fedora said. “Let’s say the youth leagues, there has been a drop off in participation. That’s been happening in the last couple of years. Obviously when you’re involved in the game of football, you have to be worried about that.”

North Carolina is coming off a 3-9 season with wins against Old Dominion, Pittsburgh and Western Carolina. Its season kicks off Sept. 1 at California.

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