NCAA conducting in-depth study of concussions

The NCAA has launched what is believed to be the largest ever longitudinal study of concussions — part of an effort to combat what has become an epidemic of head injuries in college sports.

“It’s not just football players,” said Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, who said the organization plans to study students in multiple sports.

Those participating in the advanced research component will undergo not only a baseline study, but exams six hours, then 48 hours, after every concussive event. Students from UCLA, Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina will be involved, with the University of Wisconsin participating beginning next year.

The athletes will receive baseline blood work and genetics testing, and be equipped with head sensors that they will wear during practice and games. The NCAA initially will study football, lacrosse, soccer and hockey.

Athletes also will undergo exams six months out, every year.

“By the end of three years we’ll have studied close to 40,000 athletes,” Hainline said.

The research will be run via the NCAA, the U.S. Department of Defense — which has an acute interest in concussions because of their frequency among deployed troops — and the National Institutes of Health.

The NCAA and the Defense Department are each contributing $15 million to the study and the NIH may provide future financial support, Hainline said.

Hainline made his comments Monday during a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The 19-member commission is an independent group that crafts recommendations on how college sports programs can operate while complying with the educational missions of their institutions.

The issue of concussions in sports is one that has been of acute interest to Ohio lawmakers, including Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township, who with Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., has introduced a bill that would require baseline concussion testing for all collegiate athletes. Beatty also has introduced a bill that aims to increase research, surveillance and treatment of concussions.

Both the NFL and the NCAA have faced lawsuits by former athletes who say they have not been adequately protected from brain injuries. The NCAA reports that there were more than 29,000 concussions in its sports between 2004 and 2009.

In July, the NCAA reached a proposed settlement agreement related to several concussion-related class-action lawsuits, agreeing to spend $70 million on concussion testing and diagnosis of former NCAA athletes.

The agreement conditions are subject to approval by Judge John Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. A status hearing on the proposed settlement agreement is scheduled for later this month.

Hainline said the problem is acute in football, but also in women’s ice hockey, field hockey and wrestling.

“Concussion is the elephant in the room,” he said. “Football is sitting on top of that elephant.”

Though many colleges and universities provide their athletes with extensive education about concussions, few pay much attention, Hainline said. Part of the NCAA’s work, he said, will be to determine how to more effectively educate student athletes about the risk of concussions.

“Right now when it comes to education, we don’t know what’s making a difference,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful that the study will result in new protocol for both college and other athletics “that’s going to catch on, become the norm for how we should be addressing concussions for every sport.”

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