Teevens testifies in Congress on head injury

by Alyssa Mehra | 5/18/16 7:53pm

Last week, Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens ’78 and Karen Kinzle Zegel, mother of Dartmouth alumnus Patrick Risha ’06, testified before the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee’s subcommittee on investigations. The committee had convened a panel of expert witnesses to discuss concussions in youth sports — and how they can prevented.

Risha, a former football player at the College, committed suicide following struggles with basic functions after repeated football-related injuries.

Later, it became clear he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A progressive degenerative disease, CTE affects people who have suffered from multiple concussions or repeated head trauma. It takes about 10 years for CTE to develop, and it has no cure.

Risha’s head trauma, likely a result of his football career both at Dartmouth and prior to his time at the College, is a well known case of CTE that was highlighted in a New York Times piece last year.

“The testimony was mainly to put a face on what CTE is like for families,” Kinzle Zegel said.

During her emotional testimony, Kinzle Zegel — who began by saying “I’m gonna cry” — discussed her son’s struggle with CTE and the disease’s impact on other young athletes.

Kinzle Zegel said she wants legislators to take action and limit the amount of collision allowed in youth sports.

Teevens, who was not Dartmouth’s coach when Risha played at the College, is a leader in exercising preventative practices for head injuries. He discussed recent successes at Dartmouth that utilize the Mobile Virtual Player. The MVP is a robot used during football practices to avoid head-to-head collisions between players.

“It was a great honor to let people around the country learn a bit more about what exactly we do at Dartmouth,” Teevens said.

At the hearing, Teevens discussed the role of the MVP in improving both his players’ health and also their performance on the field. With the MVP, tackling can be practiced more regularly, which makes players more effect on the field, he told the committee.

Kinzle Zegel said equipment for youth is not as developed as equipment in the NFL. She also noted that many coaches are not trained in concussion management.

Youth football — particularly below the high school level — should not involve heavy physical contact, she said. Additionally, eliminating in-practice hitting, as the MVP does, can prevent numerous injuries. Youth sports have already eliminated some high-contact practices including checking in hockey and heading in soccer, she said.

“In football, there are no limits at all,” Kinzle Zegel said.

Andrew Gregory, a member of the medical advisory committee for USA Football and an expert in pediatric sports medicine also testified at the Congressional hearing.

“We may be subjecting them to injuries that they may or may not understand the significance of,” Gregory said, “It’s important for parents, coaches, to fully understand those risks that are involved.”

Gregory said that because there is not a large database for youth sports injuries, he is looking for more funding to allotted to this area specifically and to research surrounding youth sports injuries.

USA Football is currently exploring approaches similar to Dartmouth’s to improve safety in youth competitions, he said.

Dartmouth’s football team tied with Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania to win the Ivy League title last fall, which shows that a team can practice safely by limiting contact and still have success on the field, Teevens said.

Representatives of lacrosse and ice hockey organizations were in attendance at the hearing, as were researchers and neurologists.

Hockey, lacrosse and football are amongst the most cited sports when discussions about youth sports injuries occur. Research suggests there are healthier ways to practice those sports, Teevens said.

Kinzle Zegel said that CTE is not being recognized enough by the medical community.

“Nobody equates it to playing in football games 10 years later,” Kinzle Zegel said. “In the meantime, we have young men and young women struggling in this country and don’t know what’s going on.”

In March 2015, after Risha died, Kinzle Zegel founded the Stop CTE foundation to raise awareness of the disease. The group is working with medical examiners to encourage more research on CTE. She is also working to start support groups for those suffering from the disease.

“Woodpeckers and rams and other species, it’s okay for them to bang their heads, but human beings were never meant to do that,” Kinzle Zegel said.

Raising awareness of CTE is important because the disease’s impacts are often felt before families realize what is happening.

“Our family didn’t even understand what CTE even was,” Kinzle Zegel said. “Patrick was gone before we knew what CTE was.”

Kinzle Zegel talks to families about what to do if their loved one has CTE as part of her work at Stop CTE.

“The website is to help other caregivers understand with CTE they just really need a hug and love and help and understanding and just to help them navigate through the world — it’s not easy for them,” she said. “It’s to not let parents make the mistakes I did.”

In August, the MVP was first used. The MVP allows players to practice tackling in a safer way, Teevens said. Players use the dummy during practices so they only need to tackle during games, which allows for fewer collisions, he said.

Teevens said that at this level of football, the players know how to engage on the field and do not need to practice tackling extensively.

The subcommittee on investigations is chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy and its ranking member is Rep. Diana DeGette, who organized the hearings at which Teevens and Kinzle Zegel spoke.