A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 48 of 53 -- 91 percent -- of the donated brains of deceased college football players.
If you play football, you’re susceptible to suffering a concussion from a blow to the head. It’s no secret that repeated trauma to the head can cause CTE.
College players know this. But they still play anyway.
“We’re not out here thinking about what could happen if you get hurt or anything,” said Darick Orange, a lineman at Central Connecticut State University. “We’re all thinking that we’re all going to be 100 percent -- ready to go.”
His coach, Pete Rossomando, banned players from all social media in preparation for the season. It’s all about getting ready for game one in Syracuse on September 1.
“Well, the most important focus right now is taking care of our football team, making sure we get our depth chart in line,” Rossomando said. “Who’s going to be the starters? Who’s going to be the backup?”
Rossomando said that he and his staff have always done what they can to avoid player injury, including following NCAA guidelines of limiting periods of player contact.
“You want to make sure we’re not stacking practices and live periods on top of live periods because players can’t take that,” Rossomando said. “They just can’t take that much contact.”
After deciding to leave for Maryland in 2011, Randy Edsall returned to coach the University of Connecticut this season. He’s busy trying to restore the football program to prominence. He acknowledged that concussions are a part of the game and that players have to accept that when they play.
“There’s risk involved in everything you do in life,” Edsall said. “There’s a ton of concussions in soccer as well. Again, we just try to make sure that we’re teaching the safest and the proper techniques. And then, coaching the guys if we see that they’re not executing those techniques.”
Keith Penney, an orthopedic surgeon at Torrington’s Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, is a football team physician for five towns in northwestern Connecticut. He’s got three kids and allows them to all play the sport. He agreed with Edsall.
“Other sports, participation-wise, can see higher numbers of actual concussions,” Penney said. “But the concussion severity tends to be slightly worse in football -- that’s why it tends to get such a bad rap.”
Penney admitted that he and his colleagues were alarmed by the study but he said that results from those tests were a bit skewed because many of the brains donated came from deceased athletes who had experienced symptoms associated with CTE such as depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies.
“Well, I think the danger of death is overstated,” Penney said. “That is an extremely rare occurrence. A handful of cases that we’ve had across the country, it’s because people went back to playing before an original concussion was resolved.”
According to Penney, these “second-impact” concussions are the killer. And linemen like CCSU’s Orange are the most at-risk, because unlike the smoking gun hit — say if a wide receiver is nailed in the open field — you don’t necessarily notice what’s going on to the guys in the trenches.
“What you don’t see is the repetitive hits at the line of scrimmage,” Penney said, “where these guys are going head to head. And they’re banging, and they’re banging, and they do that play, after play, after play.”
Orange has suffered a concussion in the past, back when he was at Windham Tech.
“I remember being in high school -- if I got a concussion,” Orange said, “it was pretty much up to me if I was good or not. And now here, you have a lot of eyes. You’ve got a lot of coaches out there, a lot of athletic trainers. We have athletic trainers everywhere -- administrative people walking around -- a lot of eyes out there, so everyone is looking out for you.”
Kathy Pirog, CCSU’s head trainer said if a football player shows obvious concussive symptoms, her team begins a roughly 10-minute process of evaluation.
“With this assessment is some observable signs,” Pirog said, “whether they again lost consciousness, are stumbling off the sideline, whether they are acting confused [or] irritable.”
The test focuses on things like balance, concentration, orientation, and memory. If a player fails, he goes into the NCAA’s protocol where return to play cannot happen until a player is asymptomatic.
To get back on the field, the NCAA suggests an individualized approach: wait until you can get back to baseline test levels and you’re cleared by a doctor.
In a perfect scenario, the player that suffers a concussion in a Saturday game proves that they are symptom free for five days and then returns to practice on Friday, without missing a game. Because signs and symptoms are not always immediately apparent when a player suffers a concussion, it’s real hard for there to be a perfect scenario.
“It takes honesty,” Pirog said. “The athletes need to be honest about the signs and symptoms. And not to go back into sport with any symptoms — that has to be stressed to the student-athlete.”
The NCAA and schools police themselves when it comes to player safety. Last session, the Connecticut General Assembly considered, but failed to pass, a bill that would have established a legislative committee to enforce rules around the treatment of concussion.