After a month-long investigation, the Doane Owl has found that Doane University has no mandatory concussion reporting procedure put in place. In fact, it was discovered that, in addition to Doane, neither the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes), nor the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) have any policies requiring their colleges and universities to record and report the number of concussions at their institutions.
Russ Richardson, director of student-athlete health and wellness for the NAIA, confirmed this in an over-the-phone interview with the Owl, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as the reason.
HIPAA was implemented by the federal government in 1996 with the main goal of protecting individuals’ health information. HIPAA was also cited when the Owl requested the overall number of concussions at Doane over the last year from Head Athletic Trainer Greg Seier.
Seier said his staff compiled a report at the end of every academic year, recording the number of concussions that occurred at Doane for that respective year. Yet, Seier refused to provide this information and said that doing so would violate the privacy of the athletes in the report.
“All injury information is only used for/by our Sports Medicine Staff,” Seier said. “It’s not for or to be used as public knowledge.”
Doane Athletic Director Jill McCartney agreed with Seier’s denial to the Owl. She said athletes with concussions could still be identified even without knowing their names due to the nature of their injury.
Both Seier and McCartney said the sports medicine staff voluntarily compiled the report and the only reason was for research purposes and to compare statistics to previous years.
However, Joanne Gerstner, sports journalist in residence at Michigan State University, questioned the validity of Seier’s denial since the Owl was only requesting the overall number of concussions, not the name's of the students who had concussions. Gerstner is an expert in the concussion field after doing extensive research on the subject for years and writing her own book on the matter.
“If you are not asking for names, just the numbers, they are not following the intent of those laws to have privacy protected of patients and/or students,” Gerstner said. “They are over-interpreting the law.”
However, Doane is not the only place where this is happening.
Taylor Potter, an intern at the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C., contacted the Owl in March to ask questions for a similar piece he was writing.
Potter said he was a few weeks into his investigation at the time and had found similar instances at universities all over the country, including major Division I schools.
He said out of all 50 states in the country, only five had programs in place that were aimed at recording and reporting concussion data. But even those were not necessarily mandatory and didn’t make much difference, Potter said.
Potter referred to a story written in December by The Atlantic Journal-Constitution which highlighted the situation of Division I schools, such as Georgia University, failing to record concussions their athletes sustained. Another story from Media Milwaukee in Wisconsin talked about the same issue, but instead at Wisconsin high schools.
So, would mandatory concussion data recording and increased transparency help decrease concussion incidents? Falls City, Neb. native Sally Merz seemed to think it would.
Five years ago, Merz and her family endured what every other family dreads when her son, Tanner, died after sustaining too many concussions playing football. Merz said in a phone interview that her son had three different concussions his junior year of high school, but his coaches never followed their full concussion protocol and underplayed the situation to Merz, in order to keep Tanner playing.
After several visits to neurologists and the purchasing of a new helmet for Tanner, Merz said her son decided to play college football for Midland University. After sustaining yet another concussion in his first college game, Merz said Tanner then stepped away from football.
However, she said because of the number of concussions Tanner sustained, his symptoms swelled. Merz said Tanner began to have blackouts, which were a surprise to her, as Tanner’s neurologists, trainers or coaches never informed Merz that those were a possibility. In addition to the blackouts, Merz said her son began to seem upset for no particular reason. Merz said it all ended on Easter of 2013 when Tanner missed a turn while driving home and ended up in a car accident. He died at the scene.
Merz said she later found out that Tanner had a blackout while driving through Omaha, causing him to get lost and end up in Iowa where the accident happened. An autopsy later showed that there was bleeding in Tanner’s brain before the incident. Her son’s death lead Merz and her family to start the Tanner Shelby Merz Foundation, which aims at educating schools around Nebraska about concussions and helping schools update their equipment for contact sports.
Merz said many schools have outdated equipment, such as used football helmets, leading athletes to play in unsafe conditions. She said there was better, more advanced equipment that she had found that schools could purchase, such as higher tech helmets that form to athletes’ heads. As part of their foundation’s efforts, Merz and her family helped Falls City purchase 141 state-of-the-art helmets for its high school football team. She said that the only thing keeping other high schools and colleges from doing the same thing is their unwillingness to spend extra money. However, Merz thought that was a small price to pay for schools' athletes.
“Is it really worth their lives?,” Merz said.
Unfortunately, Merz predicted schools wouldn’t give up more money anytime soon. She did say, however, that better concussion transparency and required reporting programs could help parents prepare their kids themselves. She said that if she would have known the risk of concussions at her son’s schools, she wouldn’t have cared what anyone else said and bought the necessary equipment to keep her son safe.
Doane Student Athletic Trainer Matt Beck agreed with Merz, but for a different reason. He said if concussions were better recorded, it could make people realize just how often these injuries actually happen. As a student trainer for Doane, Beck said concussions are one of the injuries that he sees the most.
“It’s bad to say but it seems like it’s (concussions) just part of the game in a way,” Beck said. “It’s awful because concussions can be life changing but I think a lot of people just have it in their head that it’s just part of the process.”
He said he often sees Doane athletes taking their “impact tests.” Impact tests are computer based tests that every Doane athlete must take after sustaining a concussion to record their symptoms. The sports medicine staff then uses the results to compare with the athlete’s previous test.
Richardson agreed with Beck in that concussions have become “part of the game” and said it would be great if everyone were required to report them. However, Richardson said that there was enough information available to the public already to find out about concussion risks around the country.
While there is a major lack of concussion reporting and recording in the United States, there are some initiatives being put in place to help the situation. Richardson highlighted the NAIA’s latest program for this called the NAIA Injury Surveillance Program. The programs aims at compiling an injury data report for all schools in the NAIA. Unfortunately, the program is only in its second year of it’s pilot stage and only has six NAIA schools currently participating. Richardson said this was due to the fact that the program required schools to invest “a lot of time and money” into it.
On a bigger scale, the NCAA and Department of Defense (DOD) have partnered together to implement a program of their own called the Care Consortium. It had a similar goal as the NAIA’s program and currently had 30 Division I schools participating. New research has also lead some universities to change their concussion protocol and return-to-play time. Seier said that Doane is one of the institutions that had implemented these changes in its protocol. He said that trainers were now treating a concussed brain as more of a sore muscle that requires exercise due to the protocol. This has lead them to put athletes through minor exercises that stimulate the brain, rather than forcing an athlete to rest at all times.
McCartney was confident in Doane’s concussion protocol and felt the university was doing exactly what needed to be done.
“It we had a lot of things we felt were unsafe, we’d be addressing it,” McCartney said.
For Merz, her love for contact sports had not hindered even after her son’s death. She said that the rest of her children still played them today and had learned many valuable lessons from them. However, her trust in concussion protocols had lessened and she instead put more of her focus on concussion prevention, rather than the treatment.
She said if parents were able to know the risk in advance, they might just be able to prevent their kids from having the same fate as Tanner’s.
“They’re still someone’s child."