CWU strives to increase concussion safety for athletes

Hanson Lee, Sports Editor

CWU wide receiver Landon Jones is set to receive the punt from the Texas A&M Commerce Lions. It’s a line drive and Jones gets ready to make a return upfield. With stadium lights illuminating the field, Jones runs toward the ball, but before he can catch it, he gets hit.

“All I remember was ‘Ok I got this, I got this, here we go,’” Jones recalls. “Literally before the ball could even touch me, everything went black.”

Jones looked dazed and drowsy as he got to his feet and walked off the field with his head down. As he left the field, CWU head athletic trainer Isaac Perry ran to aid Jones. Perry could tell what was going on and quickly understood the significance of the injury.

“Isaac knew right away,” Jones said. “He had known as soon as it happened.”

Sitting on the sidelines with Perry, tunnel vision kicks in as Jones gradually begins to come back to reality. Then Jones realizes what had happened on the punt return; he had just sustained his third concussion. Jones had no recollection of being helped off the field moments earlier. The last thing he remembers is right before he tried to catch the ball, when everything went black.

Over the past two years at CWU, there has been a combined total of 41 diagnosed concussions amongst all contact sports. With 17 of these concussions occurring during the 2016-17 athletic year, Jones is one of 24 student-athletes that have sustained concussions at CWU over the course of the 2017-2018 athletic year.

Perry described the two year comparison as normal and emphasized that concussions are never going to occur consistently on a year-to-year basis.

“It’s always gonna fluctuate, that’s just the nature of sports,” Perry said. “We really try to educate [our athletes] at the beginning of every year and throughout the year about signs and symptoms of a concussion.”

Electronically, CWU Athletics has been tracking diagnosed concussions since 2016. Prior to 2016, concussion evaluation and diagnosis was tracked via print form, but wasn’t specifically tracked by the athletic department as a separate measurement.

Perry explained that prior to 2016, athletes each had their own medical file consisting of their medical information, including concussion evaluation and diagnosis. Each athlete’s individual file would then go into one organized file consisting of every athlete’s medical file.

When asked, the athletic department stated it could take up to a month to find concussion evaluation and diagnosis for athletes spanning prior to 2016 because of the time it would take to sort through every athlete’s medical file.

What you need to know

From a medical standpoint, concussions are caused by a shaking or blow to the head area.

Kittitas Valley Health Care Chief Medical Officer Kevin Martin detailed the impact that a concussion can have on athletes of all ages.

According to Martin, he’s treated concussion patients ranging from the third grade up through the collegiate level.

“Just about anything that causes the brain to shear can cause a concussion,” Martin said.

When observing and diagnosing concussions on a functional level, Martin said that he looks for cognitive changes, perceptual changes, changes in responsiveness and changes in motor function.

Martin expressed that even with the extensive research about concussions over the years, there’s still more that is unknown about the effects of a concussion on the human brain.

“It’s so difficult to study in real time,” Martin said. “We’re trying to get a better understanding of the neurochemistry involved and I think that’s gonna be very fruitful moving forward.”

CWU Athletics concussion protocol

A major part of CWU’s concussion protocol are baseline tests. Perry explained that when athletes first arrive at CWU, they are required to complete a baseline test of their basic cognitive and physical functions, such as memory, balance and coordination. With the baseline set, the athlete is required to retake the test after they sustain a possible concussion. Perry noted that although an athlete may meet their baseline standards, sometimes the trainers still see signs during the test that may cause them to keep the athlete out.

Even if an athlete is cleared to return to play, Perry said trainers and coaches still monitor the player since athletes can push past or even hide their symptoms.

If the test shows that the athlete can’t perform to their normal standards, the athlete is removed from play immediately. Regardless of the competition level: gameplay or practice, they are removed, Perry said.

“Even if it’s mild, they’re done for the day no matter what,” Perry added.

Those athletes must proceed with concussion protocol before they can return to play.

Perry said it’s important to explain to athletes what a concussion is, why they should report it immediately and why every athlete should be looking out for their teammates.

“The biggest thing is they know that in the end, we’re not trying to hold them out,” Perry said. “If it’s a safety factor and they’re not safe to be in there, they need to be held out for their own good.”

CWU Football

Research has consistently shown that football sustains the highest number of concussions. CWU football players have accounted for almost one-third of the diagnosed concussions schoolwide over the last two years.

“Concussions are an interesting deal because they come in so many variations,” said head football coach Ian Shoemaker. “We understand that concussions are a huge concern in the sport and we’re trying to do whatever we can financially and practice wise.”

Guardian Caps:

Guardian caps are a relatively new concept that CWU implemented in the spring of 2017 to help prevent concussions within the football program. The caps are simply designed , working as an extra layer of foam padding which completely covers the outside of the helmet.

“We feel like it brings an awareness to the idea that we’re trying to do something about [concussions],” Shoemaker said. “Hopefully those collisions aren’t as intense as they might be if they were truly helmet to helmet.”

A regular football helmet consists of interior padding and a hard outer shell. The foam padding on the guardian cap wraps around the athlete’s helmet, absorbing the initial impact before it reaches the outer shell.

Financially, the cost required for a full stock of Guardian Caps totaled out to be over $5,000 for the program.

According to Shoemaker, adequate funding for the guardian caps was outside of the program’s base budget, requiring the team to gain funding through football’s portion of CWU’s Alumni Challenge, which is put on annually by the university’s alumni foundation.

“We decided that it was a need for the program as a coaching staff,” Shoemaker said. “We’re trying to follow the rules and the regulations that are out there, but also be as aggressive and as intelligent as we can be about making good decisions for our kids.”

Since Fall 2017, the Guardian Caps have been officially incorporated into the program’s base budget due to the impact they’ve had on the field.

Shoemaker believes that the Guardian Caps have helped raise awareness surrounding concussions.

“As long as we can fund it and we feel like it is a positive, we’re definitely looking to keep it going,” Shoemaker said.

CWU Men’s and Women’s Rugby

CWU Rugby has only been a varsity sport since 2014. With rugby seemingly holding the same concepts as football, except with no padding and helmets, it may be surprising that the sport boasts less concussions than football.

This is because rugby has strict rules for tackling. According to men’s rugby head coach Todd Thornley and women’s head coach Trevor Richards, players are not allowed to commit any type of tackle above the shoulders. Doing so will result in a penalty of a yellow or red card. A yellow card calls for removal from play for 10 minutes while a red card removes the player from the game.

Men’s side:

CWU Men’s Rugby athletes have accounted for eight, or one-fifth of concussions schoolwide from 2016 to 2018. Still, the Men’s Rugby team boasts the highest increase in concussions over  two years, recording one diagnosed concussion in 2016-17 followed by seven in 2017-18.

Thornley explained that this increase had a lot to do with the number of inexperienced athletes that recently joined the team.

“A lot of them weren’t taught how to tackle the right way and a lot of them had limited high school rugby experience,” Thornley said.

According to both Thornley and Richards, collegiate rugby is faster paced and more physical. If safe and proper tackling technique are not executed at this level, the game has the potential to become much more dangerous.

Women’s side:

CWU Women’s Rugby accounts for seven, or 17 percent of the 41 total concussions.

Three of these were in 2016-17 and four in 2017-18.

For Richards, watching an athlete use their head as a weapon is the last thing he wants to see out on the pitch.

“If I see it in a game or I see it on film, I will say ‘please, I’m doing this for your own good. Don’t do this,’” Richards said.

Richards explained that his rugby career was ultimately cut short due to injury and emphasized his first-hand experience playing the sport at the collegiate level. Richards noted that he probably sustained a multitude of concussions during his time as a rugby player, but that they went undiagnosed due to the lack of knowledge at the time.

“I never had anybody tell me no, and so I always try to be that person now,” Richards said. “The next game is important, but keeping you around and making sure you can lift your kids up one day is more important.”

Athlete resources & protection

Concussions aren’t always avoidable and occasionally happen to athletes participating in contact sports. CWU provides a variety of on-campus resources for athletes in the recovery process.

Student services, tutoring services and various types of rehab specialists are available options depending on the athlete’s circumstances and where they currently stand in the recovery process.

“If things aren’t going well and if we’re not liking how someone’s responding, let’s make sure we’re getting the proper help along the way,” Perry said.

One of the biggest resources for CWU’s student athletes is the university’s secondary insurance plan, which is provided to all student athletes. The plan provides student athletes with coverage for most medical expenses as it pertains to any injury. This plan becomes effective when the athlete’s primary insurance provider isn’t providing the necessary coverage.

“Definitely anything that happens during their time here, we do our best to provide the medical coverage required to get them well,” said CWU Athletic Director Dennis Francois.

Depending on the severity of an athlete’s concussion, Perry explained that the insurance can cover referrals to doctors, concussion specialists and other referrals.

The truth about concussions

Sometimes the hardest part for an athlete competing at the collegiate level is admitting they have a concussion in the first place. Especially at the collegiate level, athletes aren’t always aware of the potential harm that a concussion can have on the longevity of their brain.

Knowing this reality means that coaches and peers need to constantly educate student athletes on the significance and seriousness of the injury.

Modern day technology has given doctors and scientists the ability to understand and diagnose the traumatic brain injury with more precision and accuracy than ever before. However, experts realize that they don’t have the ability yet to run diagnostic testing for the injury in a way that can clearly identify a concussion and every symptom. Athletes must be accountable and truthful about any head injury.

“The big part there is making sure that student athletes realize that it’s their responsibility to report [concussions],” Francois said. “With all of the literature out there, with all the news, I think people realize that with the importance of reporting [concussions], we can diagnose it properly as well as get them returning to play as soon as possible.”

For CWU football wide receiver Landon Jones, telling the truth and being honest about concussions was difficult, but a task he had to come to terms with.

“Seven months ago, my girlfriend had newborn twins,” Jones said. “When you have something besides yourself to think about, that’s where I was like, ‘I can’t lie about this.’”

What a lot of athletes don’t always realize while they’re in the moment is the small role collegiate sports are going to play in their life.

“They’re gonna be here for four or five years, we want them to have a successful life after they leave Central,” Perry said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”