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After CTE Study, Spack Says Football 'Rewards Outweigh Risk'

Illinois State University
Redbird football coach Brock Spack.

A mountain of research—including a stunning new study on the brains of deceased NFL players—is changing the way that the Illinois State football team is practicing this summer.

The Redbirds held their first full practice Monday at Hancock Stadium. That was one week after new research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that 110 of 111 deceased NFL players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease believed to be caused by concussions and other head impact. The study and subsequent media reports strongly suggest CTE may be related to prior participation in football.

Speaking during Tuesday’s media day, Redbird football coach Brock Spack said concussion research has changed the way his team plays, practices, and even tackles. During preseason, the team no longer schedules two-a-day practices, Spack said. The team only practices every other day in pads, he said. Both moves are designed to reduce injury.

In the past two years, Spack’s coaching staff has taught players rugby-style tackling, where the shoulder—not the head—is primarily used. That’s cut down on blows to the head, he said. The NFL has made similar rule changes, including new ones for the 2017 season.

"I think the rewards outweigh the risk in playing football."

“We’re smarter as coaches now,” Spack said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “The science behind it, we’re all trying to figure it out. It’s much better than it was three, four, five years ago. We’ve advanced drastically. We’ve learned a lot, and there’s a lot more to learn.”

“But I'm not gonna sit here and tell you it's foolproof. There's a risk when you play football."

The most important change, he said, is to keep players off the field for at least a week after a suspected concussion. Players then are put through a conditioning protocol, Spack said.

“Sometimes players think that (conditioning) is a punishment for missing practice. That's not the case,” Spack said. “What we're trying to do is, we want to physically exert you before you have contact again.”

Despite those safety concerns, Spack is not warning parents against letting their kids play football. Spack himself played at Purdue, and his own played for the Redbirds. Several younger NFL players have retired, citing concerns over CTE.

“I think the rewards outweigh the risk in playing football,” he said. “When we play this game, it takes a little bit away from us. Our lives shorten, maybe, probably. But if you ask a lot of guys (they) would say, ‘Hey, it was worth it, I'd do this. I'd do it again, and I'd try to do it better because I love the sport and what it did for me.’”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Spack:

GLT's full interview with Coach Brock Spack.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.