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UNC Center for the Study of Retired Athletes researches lasting effects of sports injuries

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UNC's Center for Retired Athletes is housed in the Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center, pictured on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said chronic sports injuries have a snowball effect.

These injuries continue to pick up more issues over time, he said, and athletes' symptoms can spiral out of control. For Guskiewicz, researching the lasting impacts of sports injuries is what inspired UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes.

The Center is working toward understanding the effects contact sports can have on an athlete’s neurological, physical and mental health. 

The CSRA was founded in 2001 when UNC received a grant from the NFL Players Association, which was then matched by the Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development at the time, Tony Waldrop. 

Guskiewicz, who has conducted sports-related clinical research for over 25 years, is the founding director of the CSRA. He said he believes the work of the Center is imperative to improving the safety of sports and the long-term health of athletes at all levels. 

“From the faculty to the staff to the research assistants, everybody involved is working toward the mission of helping the lives of the former players,” Candice Goerger, associate director of operations, said. “I think it helps to have a really invested team.” 

The Center began its early research on sports-related concussions with a focus on high school and collegiate athletes — aiming to develop the necessary tools to properly diagnose, manage and rehabilitate concussions.

“Concussions are like snowflakes," Guskiewicz said. "There’s no two alike.” 

Compared to when the Center was first formed, the chancellor said their research now focuses more on retired athletes.

“We were approached by the Players Association about conducting a large survey of all living, retired NFL players,” Guskiewicz said. “The rest is history.”

Currently, one of the main research projects being conducted at the Center is the NFL-LONG study, which is a multicenter project between UNC, Harvard University and the Medical College of Wisconsin. 

The study provides a unique opportunity to study the athletes through a prospective lens and will bring around 250 former NFL players to the campuses over a seven-year period.

Recruited athletes participating in the project have endured various levels of concussions during their playing careers. This research allows the Center to compare the challenges of those who have experienced one or two concussions with those who have experienced eight or more. 

“The goal was to see if the concussions that they’ve had in the past have affected their long-term neurological health,” Caprice Roberts, assistant director of research operations, said. 

The study also examines whether there may be genetic predispositions to later-life neurodegenerative challenges that former players may have, which is something many other studies haven’t been able to look at through a prospective lens, Guskiewicz said. 

However, the NFL-LONG study is not the only focus of the Center. 

Recently, the CSRA has expanded its research into the realm of women’s soccer. The primary study related to women’s soccer was a broad survey of mental, physical and reproductive health that involved approximately 130 UNC program alumni, JD Defreese, teaching associate professor, said. 

Guskiewicz said that research conducted at the CSRA helps provide a foundation for improving safety in sports. He said the concussion protocol that the NCAA and NFL implemented nearly a decade ago came from some of the original research done at UNC. 

Advances made by the overarching scientific community and researchers at the Center have made it to where it’s never been safer to play sports, Guskiewicz said. 

“We've seen the incredible success stories — we've now had over 1,000 former players that have come to the Center since 2001,” he said. 

Guskiewicz hopes the Center’s continued research on older athletes will give confidence to young players. He wants those playing sports at the high school and collegiate level to know their futures aren’t “gloom and doom” once they reach late adulthood. 

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“I get excited about it because we want to keep athletes and young kids excited about playing sports,” Guskiewicz said.