After the 2015 hit movie Concussion was released, football and other contact sports were put under an infamous spotlight for their neglect of concussions. The movie was an argument targeting the NFL based off of the well-known case of football star, Mike Webster, a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Webster played in the NFL for 16 years, and was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after his passing in 2002.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can occur with repetitive concussions that have not been treated properly nor given the correct amount of time to be resolved. It causes symptoms parallel to dementia including severe memory loss, erratic behavioral changes and poor judgment.
Because Webster’s case was so severe but ignored by the NFL, a microscope has been placed on NCAA student athletes, coaches and athletic directors. With ACU football coming out of their final year of probation, opening in a new stadium and performing under a new head coach, it is important to discuss the dangers that players face, and how ACU’s athletics program says they plan to go above NCAA requirements to keep players safe. to understand how concussions are a priority for ACU sports.
David Chandler, a sophomore graphic design major from Dallas, plays for ACU as a linebacker. During his freshman year, he experienced a concussion that caused by a helmet to helmet collision that gave him a concussion lasting two weeks. Chandler says the hit was nothing out of the ordinary, but he suffered temporary memory loss and sensitivity to light and sound.
According to an NCAA fact sheet for coaches, Chandler’s symptoms are few of the many warning signs of a potential concussion. Reported symptoms are headaches, nausea, balance problems, dizziness, and concentration problems. In addition, signs that coaches and trainers look for are behavioral changes, confusion, clumsy movement, and slow response time.
Adam Ybarra, director of sports medicine and athletic training, said the NCAA fact sheets assist in his main concern – educating staff and players. It isn’t just about recognition and accountability, but also about “making sure the guys know how to tackle, what they can and can’t do, keeping their head up, keeping safe,” Ybarra said. “Most importantly not hurting our own players from friendly fire.”
When a player is suspected of having a concussion, there is a cycle of steps that they must go through to be cleared for play.
First, the player is evaluated through an interview done by an athletic trainer. After asking what happened and how the impact occurred, the player sits out for 15 minutes of rest. They are then reassessed to differentiate between a headache and a true concussion.
If the player is diagnosed with a concussion, they are required to fully rest until their symptoms subside. Ybarra said some of the frustration from players comes from the undefined length of the rest period. This time can last from 24 hours to months, but is a crucial time in preventing further injury.
“The studies show that the more concussions you get, and if you don’t come back from it correctly, you’re at higher risk,” Ybarra said.
In addition to the rest period, players are required to go through a six-day protocol. After the symptoms have subsided, players begin to workout again starting with a 20-minute bike ride to increase the heart rate. Each day, a full evaluation is done. If at any point symptoms resurface, the rest period is restarted.
Return to Learn is also an initiative at ACU in which professors work with the athletic department to help student athletes to make a full recovery in the classroom. Because the brain is a muscle, it has to be treated similar to any other physical injury. Ybarra explained that if a player had a sprained ankle, they wouldn’t immediately go run on it. In the same way, the brain cannot fully go back into a class’ workload right after a concussion.
Although Ybarra discussed the Return to Learn program as if it was common knowledge, not many professors have heard of it. Dr. Stephen Austin, a part-time professor in the Bible, Missions and Ministry department said he is unaware of the program and hasn’t had any experiences with helping concussed athletes.
“I don’t have any experience as far as I know,” Austin said. “I would think the hard part would be for them to be honest with themselves and others about how long they could stand. It would be easy to skip out on class and say you felt terrible unless you’re a motivated student.”
Lastly, Ybarra emphasized that these evaluations aren’t just pass or fail. Alongside the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT 3) and impact tests, it is ultimately up to the trainers, acting as the main screen, to decide when a player is ready to return to play. According to the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, trainers are qualified to make these decisions because they must have a degree from an accredited professional athletic training education program in addition to passing a comprehensive test given by the Board of Certification. After these steps, they must continue working on their education under a physician.
The main risk of concussions isn’t how hard the hits or how big the players, but rather the skill and talent. Because ACU will be playing teams such as Baylor and Air Force, skill has become an increasing issue. While direct hard contact is dangerous, hits on the side are more of a concern due to the potential rotational velocity. Positions most susceptible to this are in the middle of the field and include linebackers, defensive and offensive lines because they collide, through blocking and tackling, at a short distance in the middle of the field.
Head Football Coach, Adam Dorrel agreed that the biggest part of safety is informing and staying up to date with safety. Because the sport is under attack, he has become more conscious of his efforts to increase health and decrease risk of injury.
Weekly, each player has their helmet fitted properly. Also, Dorrel uses the film from drill work to point out when a player is blocking or tackling properly. Before the season begins, players are shown educational videos. Lastly, players must wear mouth guards that fit correctly.
Despite these precautions, Dorrel said the main problem isn’t when players don’t abide by them, it’s when they act in negligence and don’t report their symptoms in fear that they will lose playing time.
“The problem with a concussion is that the kid hides it,” Dorrel said. “So the biggest problems I’ve seen, is if the kid takes a hit, and he doesn’t tell you about it, and he lets it fester for 72 hours, that’s when you have problems. So what I’ve tried to do in educating our staff on is if I see a collision in practice that didn’t look right, I’ll go get that kid and pull him out.”
Dorrel also emphasized that personal relationships with players increases trust, making them feel comfortable about being open and honest about their health.
Lee De Leon, director of athletics, said he is confident in the athletic training staff to keep the players healthy, even with the hype of the new stadium and coaching staff.
“There’s a very strict protocol that Adam and his staff follow every time someone shows concussion-like symptoms,” De Leon said. “We were doing it already, but now it’s mandated by the NCAA to have a concussion protocol. Adam and his staff do a great job of making sure that all of our athletes are healthy and taken care of and adequately tested and assessed when they suffer any kind of head injury.”
Chandler also said he is excited for the upcoming season and working with the new coaching staff.
“Honestly the amount that the new coaching staff has disciplined our unit and made sure we do things the right way has greatly impacted safety,” Chandler said. “We move and put ourselves in position to make better quality plays without injury. The excitement can come from that. We will be such a crisp and precise team that it will be fun to watch us have fun and win with minimal injuries.”