New Study Reignites Discussion Of NCAA’s Role in Concussion Prevention

May 5th, 2015 | by Jeff Troxclair
New Study Reignites Discussion Of NCAA’s Role in Concussion Prevention
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New NCAA Concussion Study

A little over a week-and-a-half ago, a new study published in the Social Science & Medicine journal joined a growing body of literature attempting to document how concussions among college athletes are suffered, treated, and reported. According to this study – entitled “Concussion Under-Reporting and Pressure From Coaches, Teammates, Fans, and Parents” – more than one-quarter of college athletes responding to a survey said they had “felt pressured by coaches, teammates, fans, or parents to keep playing following a head injury.” In addition, nearly half the responding athletes continued competing while experiencing symptoms of a possible concussion.

Even worse, this study suggests that coaches and teammates exerted the most pressure to just “play through it,” and that athletes who had been diagnosed with a concussion during the previous season were more likely to have felt pressure to underreport the injury than were those who had not suffered a concussion. It’s worth noting, further, that while this study included responses from 328 NCAA athletes in seven men’s and women’s sports, no football or hockey players took part in this survey. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the responses from athletes that participated in either of these sports would have been both probative and germane.


A Lack Of Action

These findings are a stark reminder that while concussion-related awareness is at a higher-level now, concussion-related action is still in its nascent stages. Indeed, a study published last Fall in the Journal of Nuerotrauma by Harvard and Boston University researchers bolstered this position, alleging that college football players report having six suspected concussions and 21 so-called “dings” for every diagnosed concussion. That’s a 27-to-1 ratio, which suggests that despite the avalanche of information available concerning the debilitative – and sometimes fatal – effects of repeated head trauma, college football players are intentionally playing through the vast majority of potential concussions. For every Chris Borland – who walked away from a promising and lucrative professional football career only one year removed from college due specifically to concerns over the possible lasting health impacts of playing linebacker in the NFL – there appear to be scores of college football players that see the same cost-benefit analysis through a different prism.

Where, then, does the NCAA come down on the issue of protecting the student athletes who compete in its championships from the after-effects of the head traumas sustained in those same competitions, and what exactly are their responsibilities here?

The Next Logical Step

From a purely legal perspective, the proverbial jury is still out. Recently, on April 15, 2015, a new proposed settlement was reached, according to filings in U.S. District Court in Chicago, over a head injury class-action lawsuit brought against the NCAA by college football players and other athletes.  While no financial terms appeared in this new proposed deal, the original lawsuit called for the NCAA to create a $70 million fund to test current and former athletes in contact and non-contact sports for trauma caused by brain injuries. Further, it sought to have the NCAA strengthen its “return-to-play” rules after an athlete suffers a concussion. The eventual result in this landmark piece of litigation will go a long ways towards crafting policy on how the concussion issue is proactively addressed.

And that’s a good thing, as the current NCAA policy leaves a lot to be desired in certain areas. Formulated in 2010 in response to growing public concern over the long-term effects of trauma-related diseases like CTE, the current NCAA concussion policy only requires the presence of a concussion plan, and not that the plan is actually implemented. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because it sounds eerily similar to the NCAA’s approach to the drug compliance programs that I discussed last week, in relation to the recent Oklahoma State football ruling.  In that situation, merely the presence of a drug compliance program was sufficient for the NCAA to conclude there was no failure to monitor, as concepts like “oversight” and “implementation” would have apparently been a bridge too far.

As it relates to this concussion issue, it seems as if the most important (and seemingly simple) next step would be for the NCAA to revise the language of its concussion policy to reflect the necessity of a plan’s implantation, as opposed to its mere existence. At the very least, the recent Social Science & Medicine journal study and the class-action lawsuit pending in Chicago serve as a reminder to both the general public and the NCAA that while the “Oklahoma” drill is, for the most part, the relic of a bygone era, there is still a long row to hoe when it comes to minimizing concussion risk among college athletes.

 

Feature image via Hellerhoff/Wikimedia Commons

About Jeff Troxclair
Jeff Troxclair is an executive, lawyer, and life-long college sports fan. He is a graduate of both NC State University and the University of Notre Dame, and is a hopelessly optimistic Wolfpack and Irish fan. Jeff is originally from New Orleans, LA, but has lived for extended periods of time in both Raleigh, NC, and Chicago, IL. He currently resides in Oakland, CA, with his wife and daughter. Having seen the New Orleans Saints actually win a Super Bowl, he is now convinced that we live in a world where no sports-related achievement is impossible.

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