Postmortem Exam Shows Professional Bull Rider Ty Pozzobon Had CTE

© Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

By Lincoln Shryack

Former professional bull rider Ty Pozzobon had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death, researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine announced on Tuesday. The 25-year-old Pozzobon took his own life on January 9, 2017. He is the first confirmed case of CTE in a professional bull rider.

A native of Merritt, British Columbia, Pozzobon had blossomed into a bull riding star in recent years. The 2016 PBR Canada champion finished a career-best fourth in the 2016 PBR Finals and was a four-time Professional Bull Riders (PBR) world finalist. 2017 would have been his seventh year competing full-time in the United States.

Shortly after his death, Pozzobon’s family indicated that they believed head injuries from his rodeo career had played a role in his suicide.

“It’s important that people know about the implications of head injuries as a result of concussions,” Pozzobon’s mother, Leanne, said at the time of her son’s death. The bull rider’s family said that he suffered numerous concussions during his career.

In a statement on Tuesday, the family called for a smarter approach to head safety.

“We hope everyone, specifically athletes, understand that we need to educate each other with regards to head injuries, both short- and long-term impacts. Ty’s family believes not to stop doing what you are passionate about but do it in a smarter way, and listen to both what the medical professionals tell you and what your body and mind are telling you,” the statement read.

The bull rider’s family created the Ty Pozzobon Foundation in February of 2017 with the goal “to protect and support the health and well-being of rodeo competitions inside and outside the arena.” The foundation assists the Canadian Pro Rodeo Sports Medicine Team at every ProRodeo and PBR event in Canada and will help to support and educate youth rodeo and bull riding.

Professional Bull Riders issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the organization is working to make improvements in athlete safety.

“PBR has medical personnel present at every event we produce, is working with experienced organizations to develop advanced protective equipment, and is engaging with riders regularly in new research and development initiatives,” the statement read.

An examination of Pozzobon’s brain conducted by Dr. C. Dirk Keene and Dr. Christine MacDonald concluded that the 2016 PBR Canada champion was suffering from the degenerative brain disease. The neurologists were also able to confirm the chronic traumatic axonal injury consistent with traumatic brain injury that was initially revealed on an MRI prior to Pozzobon’s death.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a neurodegenerative brain disease that can cause memory loss, confusion, impulsiveness, and depression, among other symptoms.

The topic of CTE and the dangers associated with head injuries has become pervasive in the national discourse in recent years as the degenerative disease has been found in the brains of hundreds of former football players.

According to a 2015 report from the New York Times, data collected from 1981 to 2005 at close to 2,000 Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned events revealed that 859 concussions were recorded during various rodeo competitions. The Times report quoted Don Andrews, the man who collected the data, and the former athletic trainer who established rodeo’s first sports medicine program. Andrews said that his study revealed that “the vast majority” of concussions were suffered by bull riders.

Last month, Dr. Ann McKee published a potentially transformative study revealing that a protein called CCL11 may allow CTE to be discovered in living patients. While the research is still being tested and verified, the ability to diagnose the disease without examining the brain could be a step towards treatment measures.

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