College Sports and the Plight of Concussions

The national epidemic of brain injuries

“If I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all f—– up.” This was the last text Kosta Karageorge sent to his mother before he committed suicide near his Ohio State apartment. He had been a member of the wrestling and football team, a proud athlete whose life ended from a sudden and unseen turn into a depressive state.

Kosta Karageorge in uniform at Ohio State

Kosta Karageorge in uniform at Ohio State

Sadly, this story of athletes having their lives cut short from traumatic brain injuries or the complications from the injuries is becoming all to common. It is the leading cause of death for young athletes and even as sobering as this statistic is the upward trends of concussions continue.

What is known is that a growing number of these athlete suicides are attributed to the degenerative brain condition known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

As defined by the Boston University lab that discovered it CTE is “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head”

CTE had been commonly known as ‘Punch Drunk’ and had been attributed to aging boxers and what was their minds slipping as they aged. Its symptoms include: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.

Normal Brain v. Advanced CTE Brain

Normal Brain v. Advanced CTE Brain

Now however it is being discovered in athletes of all sports and all levels.

Owen Thomas was the captain of the University of Pennsylvania’s football team before he took his own life after battling depression and dementia like symptoms. Julian Jones was a sixteen year old high school standout on the gridiron before he committed suicide in October.

Sadly CTE can only be diagnosed once a person has passed away because the doctors must cut open the brain to discover the damage. Boston University has confirmed CTE present in athletes of almost any sport, from soccer to baseball, men or women.

Owen Thomas celebrates a victory over Harvard

Owen Thomas celebrates a victory over Harvard

This has led many to call what was once seen as a problem exclusive to the NFL, a national epidemic of traumatic brain injuries.

Perception is key however, while some feel it shows guts to shake it off and return to the field, many are realizing that the risks outweigh their perceived toughness.

Jaquan Waller was a high school football player who died from Second-Impact Syndrome. After sustaining a mild concussion on a Wednesday afternoon practice, he sat out all activities until the game on Friday night. Sadly when he took a hit to the head in that game he collapsed and later that night died.

Matt Scott sustained a concussion during last years USC-Arizona football game. After he got up from the turf he vomited and then staggered back to the line of scrimmage. As the ESPN announcer’s admonished the training staff for doing nothing, Scott stepped back in the pocket and threw the game winning touchdown, to the delight of misguided fans everywhere.

Fans congratulate Scott on his so called toughness

Fans congratulate Scott on his so called toughness

These types of instances happen all too often but there are positive stories about fan bases as well. Like at Michigan, where after quarterback Shane Morris was put back into the game after stumbling off the field with concussion symptoms, the student body reacted.

In the weeks following the incident a social media campaign to fire the athletic director and head football coach gained momentum and by the years end both had been ousted from the schools community.

Positive instances like this show that the general public’s knowledge on the subject is growing, and with a heightened awareness communities are better equipped to diagnose and deal with these traumatic injuries.

In the local area, Geneva public schools and Hobart and William Smith Colleges are the caretakers of many student-athletes. When looked at closely they provide a positive model for prevention and treatment of concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.

GENEVA

In regards to athletics in the public school system, the New York State concussion protocol is one of the best in the nation and with about 4,000 diagnosed cases of brain trauma in the states school system each year it’s important that it is executed properly.

Geneva High Lacrosse

Geneva High Lacrosse

In Geneva, the school district has established a concussion management team. It consists of coaches, school physicians, and athletic trainers involved in the school who create and implement the states concussion procedures and protocols. They are also responsible for training each coach individually on how to see signs of concussions and knowing when to take a player out of a practice or game.

Geneva High School as of right now finds themselves in between head athletic trainers, but as long as the management teams in place they are abiding by state laws.

“We take concussions very seriously here in Geneva,” said GCSD athletic director Randall J. Grenier, in a recent phone interview. “If a student shows the slightest signs, they are out of their respective sport until they have clearance from a doctor, with proper forms filled out.”

There are a huge amount of sports offered throughout the Geneva school system and when asked which ones see the highest number of concussions Grenier had a surprising answer.

Statistics show high rate of concussions in high school athletes

Statistics show high rate of concussions in high school athletes

“Honestly it would have to be either Basketball or Lacrosse. Most would think football, but we coach the kids well on never hitting with their heads and we limit the amount of full contact practices to one or two a week.”

What also helps is that Geneva high football has some of the highest rated equipment in the area. Virginia Tech has a program that independently tests helmets on their ability to prevent concussions, rated on a scale of 0 to 5 stars.

While many area schools are using 3 star or below helmets, Geneva high uses 4 and 5 star helmets exclusively, which cut the risk of concussions in half when compared to a 2 star helmet.

That doesn’t mean parents aren’t worried, Aaron Backhaus a Hobart alum whose children attend Geneva public schools says he has some trepidation about allowing his son to play football, “He’s a young kid and at his age I don’t think his head or shoulders are strong enough for any contact, football, hockey, or lacrosse, I think I’ll wait till he’s in junior high before letting him go full contact.”

Long term effects of concussions on high school athletes haven’t been studied as in depth as college or professional athletes, and the threat of CTE and its related symptoms later in life to former high school athletes are unknown.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

“Don’t hide it, report it, take time to recover” is the official concussion awareness slogan of the NCAA. Since 2007 the NCAA has been under fire for their policies regarding concussion protocols.

Heron has concussive header

Heron has concussive header

They have a small list of http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety/medical-conditions/concussion, that players sign necessary forms and watch an official NCAA video about the risks of head trauma. Everything else they provide, including how staffs should respond to head injuries are merely guidelines, meaning if not followed the schools cannot be sanctioned or face penalties.

However to combat the NCAA’s ineffective bureaucracy leagues have set precedent by establishing their own rules and regulations. Big time college football conferences like the PAC-12 set the standards and now most conferences and leagues all the way down to Division III follow.

This includes HWS who has been proactive in the fight against concussions and the ‘tough it out’ stigmatism that is attached to college athletes.

“We have in a given season about 5-10 concussions in our athletes” said head athletic trainer Nick Cooke, “and our ability to truly diagnose concussions have just gotten better over the years.”

The anatomy of a concussion

The anatomy of a concussion

At HWS all incoming athletes take a CRI test, which is a computer program which evaluates reaction time, acuity, and ability to recall information. The score is then saved so that when the student might receive a concussion they can take the test and compare scores.

“The test is hard!” laughed Ryan Farrell, a Hobart soccer player, “even when your clear headed its difficult, I even had to retake it a few times”

Obviously the physical signs of a concussion would show first, dizziness, headaches, lack of focus, but the program allows trainers to test students who may be ardent in claims of being fine and have statistical proof of their condition.

Once a trainer diagnoses an athlete they are sent to the hospital for a CT scan, then are sent to Hubbs health center where they go over the results of the scan.

“Depending on how severe the trauma a student might not be able to attend class for a few days, any sort of stimulation could set back their recovery.” Cooke explained “Once they are asymptomatic they will begin a regiment of light workouts and will take the CRI test again”

If a student sticks to their recovery work and scores high enough on the CRI test they are cleared to play, most are back on the field within seven days, but thats not always the case.

“I was out for almost a month, every time I started the training I would get dizzy and sick, and needed up back in square one” said Ali Pliszka, a William Smith basketball player who while chasing for a loose ball, slammed her head off the court

Diagram of Concussions

Diagram of Concussions

“It’s a tough thing to get through, because physically your fine, like all your limbs work, its just that as soon as you break a sweat your head shuts down on you.”

HWS protects the students even further by having a three strike policy, meaning if a student has three concussions, no matter the severity while on a college athletic team, they then must retire from competition. It is a rule put in place because of studies that show permanent brain damage happening from the fourth concussion onwards.

Cooke has stated however he is worried about one aspect of concussion research that is troubling, “Theres been research that shows small hits with the head, repetitively over time may be even more damaging than say one or two massive blows to the brain. Meaning that a soccer players brain through years of heading the ball or colliding with others on the pitch may be significantly worse than say a hockey or football player who gets one or two major concussions.”

Huge hits on the Boz a regular thing for Hobart football

Huge hits on the Boz a regular thing for Hobart football

At a small school like HWS concussions are a community wide problem where more than just a team is effected by a player suffering from the trauma. HWS has however implemented programs successfully enough that most students don’t feel the unnecessary pressure from coaches or teammates to get back out onto the field, it is understood on all the sports teams that concussions are serious and can have a lasting effect on one’s life.

While CTE is the national headline and not necessarily worried about on the HWS campus, it is important that everyone strives to meet the schools requirements and protocols, because the small steps taken from diagnoses to treatment is what can save someone from the harrowing symptoms of CTE.

Technical Editor. Main reporter for Sports. Media & Society Major. Writing and Rhetoric Minor. Hobart Football ’16.

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