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Researchers are tackling fresh questions about a degenerative brain disease now that it has been detected in the brains of nearly 200 football players after death. As a new NFL season gets underway, here’s a look at what’s known about CTE. (Sept. 7) AP

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Hawkeye legend Chuck Long has joined some of the biggest names in professional football who think boys should wait until they're 14-years-old to play tackle football.

The movement, Flag Football Under 14, was launched by the Concussion Legacy Foundation this year as an effort to reform contact sports so that children are not exposed to repetitive brain trauma at a young age. NFL quarterback Drew Brees is on board. So is Super Bowl champ Zach Ertz. 

It's the foundation's goal to reduce the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease most commonly found in athletes. 

Long, the 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up with the Hawkeyes, told the Register he wants to make the sport safer for all participants. Part of that is playing flag football until age 14, which is what he did growing up in Wheaton, Illinois.

RELATED: Former Hawkeye star Chuck Long lends hand to fight against CTE

"I think you develop more fundamentals and you learn the nuances of the game in flag football more than you do in padded football," Long said. "You're working your feet and you have to learn a little bit more finesse. It gets everybody involved more, I think.

"I don’t think you need to put pads on until you're in high school."

But the question remains — is he right? 

The answer, it seems, is not so black and white. 

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Why 14?

Children under 14 don't have the correct body mass and development to withstand tackles and brace impact, said Geoffrey Lauer, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa.

So waiting is the most sensible guideline — made by leading national neurologists and concussion experts — to prevent risking longterm brain injury from football, he said. 

"Fourteen is the medically agreed upon age where a majority of young men start to have those physical changes and brain maturation," Lauer said. 

Recent research from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University found subconcussive impacts, not concussions, may be the driving force behind CTE. 

MORE: Football 'literally killed' 24-year-old Zac Easter of Iowa. His family vows to make the sport safer.

Children ages 7 to 13 years old are sustaining up to 500 subconcussive head impacts per football season, Lauer said. The number increases to 1,000 as they reach the high school level. 

"Each of those head hits might have been a concussion if it happened at the right angle on the right brain at the right time," he said.

It stands to reason that waiting to play would reduce the number of head impacts by 3,500 over a child's life. And, since CTE is caused by repeated blows to the head, "there is sufficient evidence that this type of recommendation does make sense," Lauer said.

"We are very concerned about the reality that kids are being exposed to thousands of subconcussive hits that we never thought were an issue," he said.

FINNEY: Is it ethical to watch football in light of concussion syndrome revelations?

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But is flag football really safer?

But Andrew Peterson, director of primary care at UI Sports Medicine and team physician for the Iowa Hawkeyes, said there is no conclusive evidence that waiting to play is safer in the long term.

"I don't like to create rules that are based on opinion. If we had good data that says it's safer for kids to wait, then I would say, 'Yeah wait to start them,'" he said. "Right now it's really driven more by emotion than it is by data."

His research shows there's not a huge safety difference between flag and tackle football.

Peterson looked at injuries, severe injuries and concussions of 3,800 players grades 2-7 on three eastern Iowa football leagues. About 15 percent of them were flag football players.

He found that flag football players had higher rates of injuries than tackle players. And the nature of concussions and other serious injuries were not much different between the two. 

Tackle football's injury rates stand at about 2 to 3 per 1,000 exposures, he said. Children under 14 typically don't play often enough to expose themselves to risk, Peterson said. He added injuries do become more intense once players reach the high school level and the game intensifies. 

IOWA VIEW: Iowa high school football needs stricter concussion guidelines

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A new study by Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and found that 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Time

What is Iowa doing?

Iowa's students are allowed to play football for their schools once they reach 7th grade. 

The state does not regulate private leagues. Some leagues across Iowa start tackle football as young as kindergarten.

Todd Tharp, football administrator for IHSAA, said the association works to minimize risk by regulating the number of practice days required before players can move to full contact or play in games.

At the junior high level, players must go through two days of practice with no contact, wearing only helmets and mouth protectors. Contact is introduced in days three through five, but players cannot be tackled to the ground. 

Full contact in full gear is allowed after that. High school players have similar guidelines. 

"We try to avoid the amount of contact that they have as we continue to see the research that comes out at the national level that it's not necessarily the big blow, per se, it's some of the smaller contact that happens throughout," Tharp said.

"So we try to reduce the amount of time they're in helmets hitting each other."

IHSAA will host its inaugural youth football summit May 5 for football coaches of all levels to figure out how to better develop the game in Iowa. It's the first time coaches will gather to talk about all issues surrounding football, including injury safety, Tharp said. 

TYLER SASH:Former Iowa star was found to have CTE

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Indianola's Zac Easter fought with the effects CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, after multiple concussions in high school and as a young man. He killed himself at age 24 after the symptoms became unbearable. A special Register documentary. Rodney White/The Register

Iowa lawmakers have passed legislation that would require schools to develop "return-to-play" and "return-to-learn" protocols that regulate when students and athletes can go back to class and sports after suffering a concussion. 

It also requires that coaches, contest officials or licensed health care providers remove a player if they observe potential concussion symptoms. That student could not resume play until he or she has been evaluated by a trained health care provider and received written clearance to return. 

The bill passed in the Iowa House of Representatives in early March and the Senate Thursday. It is now awaiting the governor's signature.

This year's legislation is an update to school concussion protocols laid out by Iowa lawmakers in 2011. 

CTE Hope, an Iowa-based organization started by Brenda Easter, is attempting to perfect a simple saliva test that could be used to diagnose concussions on the sideline of sporting events. It's the first study of its kind in the country.

Easter is the mother of Indianola football star Zac Easter, who suffered from CTE for six years before taking his own life at age 24. He donated his brain to CTE research.

And Long, 55, is a participant in the NFL's Baseline Assessment Program, which arose out of a 2017 settlement of a concussion lawsuit. He said he recently traveled to Omaha for cognitive testing and shows no symptoms of having CTE, although the disease can’t be truly diagnosed until after death.

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