Recent discoveries concerning neurological issues in football players in the National Football League (NFL) have spawned a nationwide debate about safety in sports. While the NFL has its own class of brutal physical contact, concussions are a pressing issue on college campuses across the country as well.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines a concussion as a “type traumatic brain injury (TBI), caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head that can change the way your brain normally works. Concussions can also occur from a blow to the body that causes the head to move rapidly back and forth.”
Sara Fitzpatrick ’14 incurred a concussion from a rugby match at the college. She said that as concussions go, hers was relatively minor, and that she did not realize she might be concussed until a couple days afterwards.
“In the first few days that I was concussed, I had a lot of trouble concentrating in classes. During seminar I remember straining to hold onto a thought long enough to say it, and I had to stop a couple of times and put my head down. But by the next week’s class I had no trouble at all. Like a lot of people I know, I mostly just felt restless and wanted to get back on the field.”
Pauline Goodson ’14, however, has suffered from two reported concussions and two more unreported concussions, all from rugby at Swarthmore. While some of her concussions were minor and did not impede her daily routine, others dramatically affected her life.
“The more severe concussions were extremely debilitating,” she said. “I couldn’t do my assignments or focus in class, not only because of headaches and confusion, but because I lacked the motivation and energy to do so. Grades and relationships suffered, admittedly and regrettably beyond repair.”
Notably, she feels significantly better presently, but the effects of the concussions were damaging and lasting.
Coaching and training is also a concern, especially for club sports like rugby. Mike Lumetta ’15, one of the men’s rugby captains, explained that while the team has a coach and trainer, those coaches are not full time employees and cannot attend every practice.
“The major shortcoming of both positions is that coaching or being a trainer for a club sport is not a full time job, so both our coach and our trainer have jobs that they need to come from to work with us. If they are not at practice, it’s because they are at or on their way from their full-time jobs.”
While concussions themselves are dangerous, alcohol magnifies the effects. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that alcohol and other drugs may lengthen recovery time and increase risk of further injury. Antony Kaguara ’15, a rugby player, says he experienced increased pain from a concussion due to alcohol. He was hit hard during a match and eventually taken to the sideline where he took the ImPACT test — and only got one question right. The Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) addresses the need for an accurate, medically accepted assessment system that is used as part of an overall concussion management protocol. ImPACT benefits athletes at all levels of play, from professional sports teams to students and their parents. It involves a series of tests to conclude whether or not a student has concussion like symptoms.
Marie Mancini, the head athletic trainer explained, “The NCAA requires all schools to have concussion testing of some kind. The Athletic Department here requires all student athletes to take an ImPACT test. Some schools only put high-risk athletes on it, but Swarthmore puts everyone on it.”
Kaguara explained that after his concussion he “should have gone to my room immediately,” but, “was advised by senior teammates not fall asleep on a concussion.”
“That night I had a beer or two under the ‘watchful’ supervision of the [then] senior players,” he told me.
He said that drinking certainly increased the pain from the concussion.
“When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t get up for the next three days. Eating gave me a headache. I was out of classes for a week. For the following month or two, I was very insecure as it took me a bit longer than usual to recall material and I shied away from friends at meals.”
Recently, Colby College in Maine opted to shut down club rugby at their institution. The following is an excerpt from a letter sent to the student body by Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer:
“After much deliberation and discussion, I have recommended to President Adams that we stop supporting club rugby at the conclusion of the spring 2014 season, and he has accepted that recommendation. This decision was not made lightly, nor was it made without awareness of the deep disappointment that it will likely engender in those who have participated in and supported club rugby at Colby. But against a backdrop of increasing concern over college costs and a growing awareness of the health and safety risks of a high collision/contact sport, it is — we believe — the right decision.”
But Razi Shaban ’16, also a member of club rugby, is adamant that when played properly, rugby is safe. Notably, Shaban himself has never sustained a concussion.
“Because rugby is perceived as a dangerous sport, the team gets tremendous anti-concussion attention. We want to be extra careful, so we pull our players out and send them through concussion testing for any head impact, which will necessarily skew the numbers. While some teams will opt to play through, we don’t want to risk head injuries, because we are students first and athletes second. The reality is that if you know what you’re doing, rugby is one of the safest sports you can play.”
Lumetta echoed Shaban’s sentiments, explaining that rugby is not a significantly more dangerous sport than any other where people are running around with the potential to come into contact with each other. He argues that when played with proper technique, it’s quite safe.
“There’s a risk for injury but not a significant risk. Injuries, and especially concussions, come from people playing with poor technique, poor conditioning and not enough practice. For us, this is a particularly large concern because we have fewer-than-ideal numbers on our team. But when you play properly, you minimize the risk of injury, and in particular the risk of severe injury. As my fellow captain Taylor Nation would say, ‘It’s a cerebral game — you play it with your brain, not your head.’”
Although Mancini noted that as of early December one-third of all concussions sustained by athletes on campus were rugby related, concussions on campus are certainly not just a rugby-related issue. Athletes in in a variety of varsity club and other club sports players have players who have experienced concussion symptoms.
Cameron French ’14, who plays on the varsity soccer team, was one such recent recipient.
“While I was more consistently symptomatic it was difficult to get through longer classes,” he said. “I haven’t been able to exercise at all, and I sometimes just had to stay in my room and rest instead of going to campus events.
Even so, he noted that he has had a positive experience with administrators and sports staff since his injury.
“I think there’s a good appreciation among faculty and staff that getting healthy after a brain injury is the number one priority,” he said.
Kaguara has had similarly positive experiences with the sports medicine staff at the college.
“I got a ton of help from the sport medicine team, specifically Marie. I saw a doctor and he advised me accordingly to keep away from contact sports for while and follow a gradual return-to-play schedule.”
Mancini explained that the sports medicine department oversees both club and varsity athletes when it comes to concussions.
“When students who sustain a concussion and who have received the impact test from the sports medicine department go the Worth Health Center, they notify us and then the students work with us on recovery,” she said.
“Most concussions get better in 7-10 days and some take longer. We do, however, treat students with concussions for as long as need.”
Mancini said that concussion diagnoses at the college are generally going up, but that that can be attributed to better education and technology.
“There are about 450 total club and varsity athletes on campus, and concussions are going up because education is getting better. We’re administering more diagnoses and students are coming to us more quickly.”
When asked specifically about her views on continuing club rugby at the college, Mancini declined to respond.