Eddie Goldman is the host and producer of the No Holds Barred international podcast, the publisher of the No Holds Barred blog, and a senior contributing editor at the ADCC News.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

No Holds Barred: Dr. Sherry Wulkan on Transgender Athletes, Concussions, and Combat Sports 

On this edition of No Holds Barred, host Eddie Goldman spoke with Dr. Sherry Wulkan, who is the Medical Chair of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), the lead MMA and muay Thai physician of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, and the Medical Director of Long Island Sports Care Group Inc. in Bayport, New York.

In 2012, Dr. Wulkan presented the policy proposal to the Association of Boxing Commissions on transgender fighters, which was based on what had already been adopted by the International Olympic Committee and many other major sports organizations. With the coming to prominence in 2013 of Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender MMA fighter, this policy has been much debated.

We spoke with Dr. Wulkan by phone Tuesday.

Dr. Wulkan worked on this policy towards transgender athletes with Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., who is a Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics and Urology at UCLA, the Director of the Institute for Society and Genetics, the Chief of Medical Genetics, and an attending physician in the Department of Pediatrics. Dr. Vilain was also instrumental in developing the IOC's policy on transgender athletes.

"What we found out," said Dr. Wulkan, "was in fact when an athlete undergoes [male-to-female] sexual reassignment, that the hormones, the male advantage in this case, is mitigated, after some say one year, but we were very conservative and made it two years."

She continued, "Testosterone, which can cause what we call male aggression and also increases muscle mass, is mitigated if the hormones are removed. After a two-year interval there is really no advantage that we know about at this point from having a sex change."

Dr. Wulkan also worked with the Florida commission on this issue, where Fallon Fox was licensed and fought three times in 2013.

We discussed the scientific reasons for this policy and why more education is needed on this issue. "There is a learning curve for everybody," she said.

We also moved on to the issues of concussions, head injuries, brain damage, and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). "We're ahead of the game because of everything the NFL has gone through," she said, including the major media coverage on this issue for American football, and the settlement of a lawsuit brought by over 4000 former NFL players against the league for allegedly covering up information about the risks of playing that sport.

While the relative safety of sports like American football, boxing, MMA, and muay Thai can be debated, they all pose the risk of brain damage for at least some of their athletes. Much more research needs to be done to understand fully those risk factors, she said, but today the regulators like her are "trying to make it as safe as possible" by seeing their role as "fighter advocates".

In addition, we also discussed where fighters can get more information on these health and safety issues, the growing awareness about them by the members of the Association of Boxing Commissions, and much more.

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