Although racked by grief and confusion, Kathy Brearley always hoped something good, however small, might come from her son Owen Thomas’s suicide. And in the weeks and months following the revelation that Thomas, a former Penn football player who hanged himself last year, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to depression and most likely caused by repetitive brain trauma, Brearley urged the Ivy League to look into doing more to safeguard their athletes.
“I think this does provide an opportunity for Ivy League schools to stand up and take a leadership role in this, because Ivy League people are leaders,” Brearley said in an article I wrote for the Gazette.
It appears as if Brearley’s words have been heeded.
Today, the Ivy League issued a release that stated, after extensive research, steps will be taken to try to limit concussions and sub-concussive injuries among the conference’s football players. Part of the release reads:
The recommendations, to take effect this coming season, include limits to the number of full-pad/contact practices that can take place throughout the football year. Also, there will be further emphasis on educating student-athletes on proper tackling technique, the signs and symptoms of concussion, and the potential short- and long-term ramifications of repetitive brain trauma. In addition, there will be a more stringent post-game League review of helmet-to-helmet and targeted hits.
Later in the release, more specifics of the practice changes were revealed:
The new in-season practice limitations permit no more than two full-contact days per week, a 60-percent reduction from the NCAA maximum. Spring practice will see the number of allowable full-contact practices cut by one, a 12-percent reduction from current Ivy League limits and a 42-percent reduction from the NCAA maximum. Additionally, the number of days that pads can be worn during both sessions of preseason two-a-days has been limited to one.
While there’s a chance some players and coaches may react negatively to this news (the competitive balance, it could be argued, will be altered), the New York Times, the newspaper that first reported on the brain autopsy that discovered Thomas’s CTE, quoted Harvard football coach Tim Murphy as saying, “I’m not sure there will be any dramatic changes, because the changes over the last few years for dealing with head hits have changed dramatically.”
And Penn seems to be completely on board, as well. According to Calder Silcox of the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn football coach Al Bagnoli, Penn trainer Eric Laudano and Penn Medicine physicians Steven Galetta and Laura Balcer were all part of the committee that made these recommendations to the Ivy League presidents. Bagnoli was then quoted by the DP as saying, “We were trying to be front and center…and be ahead of the curve and do it in a very responsible way.”
While Thomas’s name is not mentioned in the Ivy League release (or in the New York Times article), it’s pretty easy to see his suicide triggered these overhauls. In the first sentence, the release mentions “subconcussive hits,” a relatively new term that was brought to light because Thomas never suffered from any documented concussions throughout his playing career. The release later states, “The multiple hits sustained in football, as distinct from those causing concussion, may have a role in the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in some individuals.”
Thomas, according to the original New York Times report written by Penn grad Alan Schwarz C’90 (who I interviewed on the subject last year), was the first amateur player ever diagnosed by CTE, which had been previously found in many ex-NFL players who committed suicide.
But that one case alone, it would appear, was more than enough to for the Ivy League to act. I’m sure Brearley and many others would like to commend them for leading the charge.