"We need to take off the veil," Martin said. "I've attended far too many funerals lately for teammates and colleagues who have unfortunately succumbed to CTE."
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including concussions.
Martin was the keynote speaker at the Ultimate Concussion Conference, a gathering of experts and policymakers in sports administration, law, education and health, including neuroscience and neuropsychology. About 80 people were expected for the three-day event.
"I always felt there was a lack of communication between disciplines, so I said, 'Let's start a meeting that does this,'" said co-organizer Dr. Don Teig, an expert in sports vision from Ridgefield, Connecticut. "A lot of players are so thrilled we're doing this, because the subject had been pushed aside and buried. My goal was not to bury it anymore, and build it into something that lets people who are looking to come up with answers share their ideas."
The first speaker was Martin, who described the toll he has seen concussions take. Martin played defensive end for the New York Giants from 1975 to 1988.
"The helmet I wore for the first five years of my career will tell you everything you need to know about concussions in the NFL," he said. "If you looked at that helmet, you would be aghast. On the front there are nothing but scars, deep and penetrating. It's absolutely covered with them."
Martin said helmets today are much improved, and said he has no criticism of the league's recent response to concerns about CTE.
But Martin said the disease has many players from his era worrying about their health.
"When I walk into the hospital room of a colleague who is a shell of his former self, I ask myself, is this a prelude to the future for me?" he said. "You don't know how frightening that question is."
Dr. Michael Bergeron, president of Youth Sports of the Americas, told the conference there has been little improvement in understanding concussion risk because, ironically, there's so much data to absorb. Supercomputer software will help process information in the years to come, Bergeron predicted.
"It's too much for a human being to do," he said. "We have to rely on software that can pull it together in an intelligent way. This will help prediction models and prevention."
New findings will be presented Saturday by Dr. Tad Seifert, a Louisville neurologist involved in a study of boxers and mixed martial artists. He said the study found headaches increase with the incidence of concussion — not a surprise, but something previously unsubstantiated.
"It could be a marker to follow over the arc of an athlete's career in helping to identify those who become high-risk" and most susceptible to long-term problems, he said.
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