Football’s concussion problem, and how Oregon’s handling it
The University of Oregon Public Relations Student Society of America’s chapter meeting in early April certainly had a unique appeal.
Oregon football head coach Mark Helfrich was there to talk about media relations, but when he began taking questions, the conversation shifted to perhaps the biggest issue facing the sport: concussions.
Helfrich compared head injuries to car accidents.
“They aren’t going to outlaw driving cars. They’re going to look for ways to make it safer,” Helfrich said. “That’s what we’ve got to do in football.”
In general, increased awareness, coupled with changes in rules, equipment and how the game is taught, has created a safer game. Protocol for how head injuries are treated has improved, and growing scientific research on the subject is leading to a better overall understanding of the injury.
Yet making the sport safer doesn’t address all the problems. At Oregon, 79 concussions from football were reported from 2013-2015, according to records received from the university.1 Hits like the one that knocked former Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams out of the Alamo Bowl in January display the violence that persists in the game.
When asked how football has changed since his heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Oregon defensive line coach Ron Aiken smiled.
“[It] was taught you led with your nose,” said Aiken, who has coached at both the Division I and professional level for 24 years. “Guys wanted to stay on the field so much that they didn’t talk about what happened as far as a head-to-head collision. They just accepted it and went on to the next play.”2
Former Oregon linebackers coach Erik Chinander, who is now working under former offensive coordinator Scott Frost at the University of Central Florida, gives a similar assessment.
“When I was playing, guys were concussed, but you’d let them go,” said Chinander, who played offensive line at the University of Iowa from 1998-2002.
That’s not to say that concussions were somehow a foreign concept when Aiken and Chinander played. Rather, in Chinander’s words, “It just wasn’t relevant.”
The version of football they describe does not exist anymore.
When incoming recruits arrive for summer session, Greg Skaggs, Director of Athletic Medicine, gives them a packet that lists the risks of a concussion, from what the symptoms are to how to correctly manage one.3 In 2010, the NCAA mandated that all member institutions have concussion management plans on file.
Skaggs, who has worked at Oregon since 2007, uses a formal and structured system when teaching and evaluating concussions. Skaggs and his team give baseline tests — known as SCAT 3 — to every player before the season, which gives them a distinct understanding of each individual’s normal cognitive skills should a head injury occur.
More critically, Skaggs has implemented a step-by-step process for monitoring players who’ve experienced head trauma — covering everything from when they’re allowed to return to school to when they’re permitted in the weight room and, finally, when they can hit the field. At the same time, most concussion testing still relies heavily on players’ honesty.
“We don’t have a magic test that will tell us for sure whether somebody has a concussion,” Skaggs conceded.
The issue of self-reporting remains perhaps the single biggest roadblock to the effective diagnosis and treatment of concussions. When a player sprains an ankle or twists a knee, he or she will almost always limp — it’s hard to fake walking on one good leg. As Skaggs and others have routinely pointed out, there is no objective way of pinpointing when a player has been concussed.
It has compelled some programs to shift some of the responsibility of identifying potential concussions on suspected athletes’ teammates. Oregon is one of 15 high-profile athletic programs that require athletes to report if they suspect one of their teammates sustained a concussion. It’s called the “snitch rule.”4
Such a rule could help detect more head injuries, but some players equate it to “snitching” on their teammates and refuse to do so. A 2015 survey of 200 Division I athletes by University of Dayton researchers found that half did not report suspected concussions for teammates.5
Oregon defensive lineman Canton Kaumatule, who has sustained multiple “freak” concussions during his playing career, said he would have no problem reporting a teammate whom he thought might be concussed.
“I’ve been through it, and it’s not fun,” Kaumatule said.
Kaumatule’s most recent concussion occurred on the final day of fall camp last year. He was pushed in the back and tumbled forward to the ground at the same time a teammate ran full-speed into the top of his head. The next moment he remembers is waking up to a light being shined in his eyes. Kaumatule then underwent treatment with Skaggs and the athletic medicine team before making his Oregon football debut against Michigan State about two weeks later.
Chou began researching the effects of head injuries 12 years ago.7 In 2013, he and a team of researchers released a study concluding that concussed athletes’ executive function, which is the ability to perform multiple tasks successfully, was abnormal well after the injury occurred.8
The study also showed that how individuals feel may not match up with their cognitive results. And perhaps most importantly, the point at which a concussed athlete returns to “complete recovery” is unknown, according to the team’s findings.
Kaumatule’s playing time last season was limited due to the concussion and other minor injuries. Since then, he has taken measures to prevent another severe head injury from happening. Medical trainers have been working to find the right helmet for him, trying out interior padding for his helmet, as well as different caps designed to reduce the impact his head receives when hit. They told Kaumatule if he were to sustain another couple of concussions, he would be forced to retire from football.
“I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” Kaumatule said.
It didn’t sway him to call it quits, though, which is the attitude of many current and former Oregon players. Tight end Evan Baylis has considered the long-term effects of concussions — such as depression, Parkinson’s disease and progressive dementia — but said, “You can’t be thinking about that. You become more tentative.”
Former offensive lineman Tyler Johnstone, who is expected to at least be signed as an undrafted free agent in the upcoming NFL Draft, admitted he’s heard the horror stories.
“It’s the most terrifying thing ever,” Johnstone said. “But you just have to do it and take the right precautions to protect yourself. ”
Yet concussions, like car crashes, continue to occur despite increased safety precautions.
The 37 reported concussions at Oregon in 2015 indicate that the injury remains just as much a part of the game as anything else. It’s the reason why Johnstone said that if he ever has a son, he may push him to play golf.
“This is an uncommon game for uncommon men,” Chinander, the former Oregon linebackers coach, said. “We’re trying to limit the risk, but it’s always going to be there.”