Football

UNC's Kevin Guskiewicz, concussion expert, would ban boxing, and maybe, punt returns

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 13, 2015 Kevin Guskiewicz, professor and former chair of the Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the College of Arts and Sciences, conducts research on helmet sensors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In this photo taken Wednesday, May 13, 2015 Kevin Guskiewicz, professor and former chair of the Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine at the College of Arts and Sciences, conducts research on helmet sensors at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. AP

As one of the nation’s leading experts on sport-related concussions, Kevin Guskiewicz has a strong opinion on the sport of boxing.

“There’s no other sport where the purpose is to knock your opponent unconscious,” he said.

Guskiewicz said during a 12-round bout, a boxer can average between seven and 12 concussions.

“To me, boxing should be banned,” he said this week in speaking to the Raleigh Sports Club.

But football? That’s another subject.

Guskiewicz, dean of UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, is co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center. He also serves as research director of the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes at UNC.

Guskiewicz believes there still will be football played in 10 or 15 years despite the increasing fear that repeated concussions and head trauma from playing the sport can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease commonly called CTE.

The headlines in recent years have been dire and foreboding: 110 of 111 deceased NFL players showed evidence of CTE when their brains were analyzed. Another was Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who hanged himself in a Massachusetts prison in 2017 while serving a life sentence for murder.

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Guskiewicz is among those researchers who believe there are multiple causes of later-life dementia, mood changes and depression, which at times has resulted in suicides among football and hockey players. CTE certainly can be a factor, but is it the only cause? Are there enough extensive case studies? Those questions still need to be answered.

Guskiewicz has spent much time in developing and proposing safety measures that can reduce concussions.

Guskiewicz has served on the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, and one of the recommendations was moving the kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line to reduce the number of kickoff returns — the most dangerous play in football, he said.

The rule was put in place in 2011 and Guskiewicz said there were 30 percent more touchbacks and thus no returns, and a 50-percent decrease in concussions on kickoffs.

The NCAA followed suit, he said, starting possessions at the 25-yard line rather than the 20 after touchbacks. Again, there was a 50 percent reduction in concussions.

But Guskiewicz has another idea, one to alleviate what he calls the “next-most dangerous play” in football: the punt return.

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Only four players would be on the field — the long snapper and punter on the kicking team, and two players on the receiving team. There would be a punt but no return.

Guskiewicz said he has made his punting pitch to ACC commissioner John Swofford, smiling and saying, “I’m not sure he’s actually been brave enough to take it to the NCAA yet.”

Guskiewcz has three sons and said all played football, his oldest through the high school level. He also has had three concussions of his own, including one playing high-school football.

Guskiewicz, in most speaking appearances, stresses there is no “concussion crisis” affecting U.S. sports.

“That is absolutely not true,” he said. “There’s probably no better time to play sports, including contact sports, than right now because of how much more we know today about concussions.

“We have better tools in the tool box and can better identity that (athletes) has had a concussion. We get them to the emergency room, we get them treated. They show up in the data base.”

Guskiewicz said the 40-percent increase in the number of concussions the past five years was a reflection of an increase in better diagnosing a concussion, combined with better treatment for it. In the past, he said, many concussions were not correctly diagnosed and treated.

“There are no more concussions occurring on our playing fields today than there was 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said.

While protective equipment such as football helmets have improved, while they have prevented a lot of skull fractures, brain leaks or catastrophic brain injuries, they’re not fool-proof or concussion-proof, he said.

“We have to be careful of misleading our young athletes or coaches or parents to believe that this great helmet they buy for $350 is going to prevent concussions and Johnny goes out there and plays and has this false sense of security,” he said. “I tell people to really prevent concussions it needs to come through rules changes and teaching proper techniques.”

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