Concussions expert urges age limit on head blows

Concussions expert urges age limit on head blows

ZURICH (AP) A leading neurosurgeon called for better protection for young athletes from head injuries 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 body-checking in ice 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.''

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 behavior.

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 ``bobble-head 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 age 16 - for ``marvelous'' 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.

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 ice 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, aged 40-69 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.

``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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5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera


5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 


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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz


MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.