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Surgeon calls for bodychecking ban in youth hockey

Minor hockey players take part in First Strides in Vancouver December 5, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

A leading neurosurgeon called for better protection from head injuries for young athletes on Friday, as a research project involving 100 retired NFL players seeks a diagnosis for a brain disease linked to multiple concussions.

At a FIFA-hosted international conference on concussions in sports, Robert Cantu urged the outlawing of tackling in football, heading in soccer and bodychecking in hockey in youth matches.

"It's best not to have blows on the head under the age of 14," Cantu, from Boston University's medical school, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the seminar. "The bottom line is that we need to make sports safer for our children."

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Cantu addressed 150 medical experts, including advisers to the NFL and NHL, at the conference, which is backed by the International Olympic Committee and held once every four years.

Delegates were shown case studies from autopsies performed on American athletes who committed suicide after suffering symptoms including depression, memory loss and aggressive behaviour.

Now, 100 former NFL players are taking part in research led by Boston University to find a diagnosis for the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

"I am concerned about what we know about repetitive head trauma," Cantu told delegates, describing children under 14 as vulnerable to a "bobblehead doll effect" at an age when the head is disproportionately large for the relative strength of the neck.

"I am not anti-football, I just want them to play flag football until the age of 14. I think, over time, it will happen," he told the AP.

Still, Cantu praised the Pop Warner League, which organizes football up to 16, for "marvellous" progress in acting this year to restrict full contact playing time in practices.

"It's American tackle football, you can't take the tackling out," said Stanley Herring, a medical adviser to the youth league and the NFL. He helped promote legislation now adopted in 40 states requiring young athletes concussed in action to be cleared by a health-care professional before returning to play.

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Herring, a University of Washington professor in neurosurgery, advocated a "more prudent approach" than age limits, including education for coaches, parents and players.

In Australian Rules football and hockey, a greater emphasis on teaching technical skills at an early age helped protect athletes from head blows, the seminar heard.

FIFA medical director Jiri Dvorak told the AP that sports should adapt their rules to reduce injuries, as football did cracking down on use of the elbow.

"We have to offer all the arguments so that the executives can make the proper decisions," Dvorak said.

The NFL, which is facing a lawsuit on concussions involving thousands of former players, was praised by one delegate for changing its view on the dangers from "denial to a $30-million donation" to medical research.

Current research by Boston, Harvard and Pennsylvania universities will use former NFL players 40 to 69 who were exposed to a high risk of concussions, and a further 50 athletes with no recognized head trauma injuries, to identify biomarkers of CTE. Researchers will examine samples of spinal fluid and electrical activity around a patient's brain.

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"It is huge because I hope, out of it, we can make a diagnosis of CTE in living individuals," Cantu told the AP, pointing to a similar breakthrough achieved in understanding Alzheimer's disease.

Research papers could be delivered in around one year, and "definitive theories and treatments" within four years.

"We don't know the true incidence and prevalence [of CTE] today," Cantu said. "So much more work is going to be necessary to understand it."

In other discussions during the two-day conference, a suggestion of mandatory retirements after professional athletes sustained a certain number of concussions was dismissed.

"I guarantee you if it's three [concussions] and you're out, they won't tell you about the third one," Herring cautioned.

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