More than 17,000 student-athletes across 20 schools in the Big Ten and Ivy League conferences will be among potential candidates for concussion research.
The two conferences announced last week an unprecedented research partnership that aims to better understand concussions when they occur in sports, particularly in football.
“While athletics is our focus as a conference and as part of the NCAA, this extends beyond the boundaries of the playing surface and goes into the research labs and the world of academics,” said Kerry Kenny, assistant director of compliance at the Big Ten.
It’s rare for two athletics conferences to combine their academic capabilities in a joint research venture, but lately, concussions have become a major issue in the world of sports.
Little is known about how to diagnose them, and even less is known about their long-term effects. National awareness is on the rise, and courts have found themselves having to settle who’s to blame for not knowing.
More than 2,000 former National Football League players brought a joint lawsuit earlier this month against the league, alleging the NFL knew of the damaging effects of head injuries but hid evidence.
Gophers head athletics trainer Moira Novak said concussions have been just as much of an issue at Minnesota as they are nationally.
“Most concussions will recover in a seven- to 10-day period,” Novak said. “That’s a very well established, documented fact.We had a number of student-athletes during the previous academic year who exhibited symptoms lasting beyond one year.”
However, Novak said the rise in concussions at Minnesota should be chalked up to an increased awareness, adding that student-athletes are reporting head trauma now more than ever.
“We’ve always had concussions. That hasn’t changed,” Novak said. “What has changed is the public awareness — it has dramatically increased.”
Novak said the impact of head injuries on student-athletes can be more complex because of their age and inexperience to know when they should report a “mild headache.” She said Minnesota has made a conscious effort of educating the coaches and trainers.
Novak said trainers and coaches are in the “driver’s seat,” making it even more crucial that they can identify head injuries early. However, Novak said the increase of concussions has also occurred because the student-athletes report actual injuries more often.
“I think they are owning [head injuries] a bit more,” she said. “So at least that means the education is working.”
The Gophers didn’t allow access to student-athletes for this story.
A collaboration of prior history
The partnership between the Big Ten and Ivy League conferences wasn’t a mix-and-match. The conferences have a brief history of studying concussions caused by sports.
The Big Ten started a “concussion management plan” in 2010 that initiated some of the awareness across athletics conferences. The Ivy League followed in 2011 with several methods aimed to slow football-related concussions, one of which limited the hits student-athletes take during practice.
The Purdue Neurotrauma Group, a research collaborative at Purdue University, is one of the Big Ten groups that pioneered the effort.
The PNG first gained recognition two years ago for its work in studying the brains of high school athletes. Its research found that athletes often play through injuries because their concussions were difficult to diagnose.
Eric Nauman, an associate professor at Purdue and an investigator with the PNG, said the group has also been studying its collegiate athletes, giving 70 to 80 football student-athletes an MRI before the season starts and tracking the hits they take in practice and games through sensors in each helmet.
“It reaffirms what we’ve found: There are a lot of kids without any symptoms during their first season, but they still show real pronounced neurophysiological changes,” Nauman said.
In other words, Nauman said, the MRI says the student-athlete has a concussion but shows no symptoms.
This type of research spurned talks across the schools about sharing information across the Big Ten. However, Nauman said it was the Ivy League that started talks of collaborating across conferences.
Dennis Molfese, the director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska, said the Ivy League approached the Big Ten’s committee on intercollegiate collaboration about crossing conferences.
“But there are a lot of details to be worked out at this point,” he said.
Molfese said there are many areas of concussions that simply haven’t been studied — multiple perspectives like behavioral sciences; a concerted effort for sports players to provide feedback before, during and after a season; as well as data on the implications of multiple concussions.
“Putting all those things together doesn’t exist anywhere,” Molfese said.
“If we can pull it off within one or two years, we’ll have learned more about concussions in terms of human behavior and brain processes than we’ve known over the last 140 years.”
Where to start?
Since the research collaboration is still in its early stages, many trainers and researchers haven’t been told where to start.
“The decision to start the research happened at the conference level,” Nauman said.
Novak, the Gophers’ athletics trainer, said the athletics training staff at Minnesota also knew very little about the partnership and that the announcement came as a “surprise.”
“Frankly, they haven't involved the athletics side of things much in their decision about doing the research,” she said. “While I support what they’re doing, a little heads-up would have been nice.”
Novak said the University of Minnesota is always at the forefront of national and international research regarding brain injuries.
“That’s why we’re even more surprised by the announcement,” Novak said.
Minnesota’s top-tier research capabilities haven’t gone unnoticed, however. Researchers across the Big Ten have pointed to how successful it could be to collaborate with Minnesota — let alone with the whole conference.
“The University of Minnesota has the best research MRI facility in the country, if not the world,” Nauman, the researcher at Purdue, said. “Just a partnership with Minnesota would be outstanding.”
Kenny, associate director of compliance at the Big Ten, said the partnership was about seizing an opportunity to help the safety of student-athletes while utilizing “world-class” research institutions. He said the timing of the announcement only marks the beginning of collaboration, not researching.
“We still need to figure out exactly what we’re already doing and what we can join forces on, compared to what we need to start working on as a partnership,” Kenny said.
Kenny said within the next six to 12 months, researchers and trainers from the conferences’ schools will start to hear some direction on what to do.