Increasing awareness of brain injury helps save student athletes

Marist junior Ky Donegan attempts a head-on tackle against her opponent. Contact sports like rugby have recently come under fire for sustaining head injuries. Photo by Maren Milliard.

Marist senior Heather Carr suffered her fifth concussion while playing rugby in the spring of her sophomore year. After being routinely tackled to the ground by an opposing player, her head smacked roughly against the ground from whiplash and everything went black. When being tested at Saint Francis hospital later that day, she was advised by the doctor to retire from rugby altogether. Five concussions are serious enough in nature, and any more could result in potentially lethal cerebral hemorrhaging – not to mention, she was well on her way to having lifelong struggles with brain injuries, starting at twenty years old.

“The thing is, I have no idea why no one tried to stop me from playing after my first concussion,” she said, having started her rugby career in high school. “Or, after the second time. Or the third. No one really seemed too concerned with concussions even a few years ago. It’s all of a sudden when concussions are truly seen as dangerous that people are starting to notice.”

The concerns that Carr brings up are not exaggerated. Recently, concussions have become arguably the most dangerous injury to sustain while playing a sport. Rugby and American football are two sports that have come under the most fire at an international level, due to the fact that tackling is such a large component in both of the games.

Contrary to speculation, however, there is insufficient evidence to claim that one sport causes more concussions than the other. Deborah Braconnier, a contributor for Yahoo! Sports, wrote in a recent article that “rugby seems to have some of the same issues as the NFL does when it comes to concussions.” Similarly, both the NFL and the International Rugby Board have been attempting to make positive changes to the rules regarding when a player is concussed. The real problem, though, according to Braconnier is that most concussions “go unrecognized or untreated.”

It is one thing for this negligence to occur at the professional level – with student athletes, most of whom will not go professional, it has become an enormous issue. Football, which stands right beside baseball as “America’s sport”, is played by kids starting as early as elementary school. Rugby has a vast international following and has slowly been seeping into club and divisional sports programs around the country. Marist has both a men’s and women’s club rugby team, both of which travel all around the tri-state area playing a number of other college teams. Concussion rates have been increasing in all other contact sports, too – from soccer to lacrosse, these brain injuries have been sidelining athletes far too soon, during times when their brains are still attempting to develop.

Jessica Ely, a Marist junior in the athletic training department, travels to high schools around the Dutchess County area to gain experience in treating student athletes. She says that concussions are without doubt the most important part of her training.

“A lot of the problems surrounding concussions right now are that no one would get themselves checked before,” she said, a day after helping cart a high school football player off on a stretcher due to his third sustained concussion. “There’s obviously a huge emphasis placed on being strong and tough, especially in contact sports. And especially in football, which is a collision sport, because you get all of the padding. But by the time an athlete comes to my supervisors and I for help, they’ve already had multiple injuries. And by then, brain injuries have already occurred.”

The UK’s publication The Guardian recently published an article titled, “American football or rugby: which is more dangerous?” Despite the title, however, the article merely delved into the fact that contact sports in general are dangerous, and that precautions need to be taken. The article cited a recent study done at Boston University which tested 35 former athletes – 34 of these athletes showed signs of brain injury, with most of them being highly susceptible to “disastrous long-term problems including a degenerative brain injury, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

Despite all of this negativity, which has been augmented by unarguable medical information and media coverage, there is the hope that these two factors are actually helping to create a more positive future for student athletes. Extensive media coverage over concussions and other athletically-sustained head injuries have created a vast source for awareness, which has not been lost on educational systems.

At Marist, all student athletes must complete a mandatory “baseline concussion test” that goes on file directly to the athletic training center. Coaches are urged to take responsibility and send any student that may have sustained a head injury to the center to get tested. Tony Brown, the head coach of the women’s rugby team at Vassar College, and Maren Milliard, the head coach of the women’s team at Marist, both agreed on the necessity to keep an eye out for possible injuries.

“As a coach, it has become more than simply following strategy on the field and following basic procedures,” said Brown. “We need to keep a close eye on our players and ensure that they’re alright, especially because we have so much experience in observing potential symptoms.”

Milliard echoed this, saying that “basically, it’s better to over-check than to under-check. I send my girls to the trainer if I suspect that there’s anything wrong at all. I don’t want to instill paranoia in my players, but it helps them start to become aware and focused on taking the utmost care of their health.”

The most important advantage we now all have, though, is information. Ten years ago – or even two years ago, in Heather Carr’s case – concussions were not as publicized or worried about as they are now. There is now enormous impetus, in all sports, to take care of your health and to get treated after any possible head injury.

“The media and information definitely makes concussions seem scary,” Carr said. “But I wish that I had had access to that information, or had been aware enough to treat myself. Hopefully in the near future, student athletes don’t have to be told that their athletic career is over at twenty, five concussions later. Hopefully, it’ll become the norm to take precautionary steps after the first one.”

Carr concedes that, in contact sports, concussions are going to happen on occasion. “It’s the same with any injury. They’re going to happen. But I think that they’ll start to happen with less frequency. That’s my wish.”

With concussion awareness taking prevalence across the nation, and even at an international level, it seems likely that her wish will be granted.

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