It was a freak hit — a blow to the back of University of Wisconsin fullback Austin Ramesh’s helmet by an opposing Illinois player. Ramesh described being “a little dazed” as he walked off the field.
He had suffered a concussion in Wisconsin’s Oct. 28 game this season against Illinois and ended up missing a week of practice and the next game against Indiana.
Ramesh, a senior who had gotten used to violent collisions going up against 200-plus pound linebackers, was dismissive of the injury.
“I think it was just more of a precautionary thing more than anything. People take those things more seriously than anything these days, so it made my mom happy,” Ramesh said.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former Badger football players reveal that many downplay the threat of brain injury, even though some said they have had their “bell rung” many times. Increasingly, however, a growing number of researchers, coaches, players and their families are worried — not just about brain injury in football but in other contact sports as well, including ice hockey, mixed martial arts, boxing, wrestling, rugby, lacrosse and soccer.
Wisconsin is in the middle of this national controversy, with research into concussions being conducted in the state, and a string of players who have left football after suffering brain injuries. A longtime UW-La Crosse head athletic trainer said he believes it is time for a #MeToo moment for concussions.
The problem is so serious that Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist whose discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was chronicled in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” recommends not letting children under 18 play any contact sports, including football.
In an interview, Omalu, now at the University of California-Davis, said even hits not deemed to be concussions can be dangerous.
“There is no safe blow to the human head,” Omalu said. “Every impact to your head can be dangerous. That is why you need to protect your head from all types of blunt force trauma. A helmet does not make a difference.”
Research confirms worries
Research released this month from Boston University confirms Omalu’s worries. By studying the brains of deceased teenagers who had played football or other contact sports, researchers found that blows to the head — even if there were no symptoms of a concussion — can lead to the early stages of CTE, a degenerative brain disease. Signs of CTE were detected in the brains of three of the four research subjects.
“It’s kind of staggering to even think about this — a teenager with a neurodegenerative disease,” said Dr. Lee Goldstein, associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University, in a video accompanying release of his research.
A study published in July showed CTE in 110 of 111 deceased ex-NFL players who had donated their brains to research. In the same study, 177 of 202 deceased players who had played at any level of football — high school, college or the NFL — were found to have CTE.
CTE has been linked to memory loss, impaired judgment and impulse control, aggression, depression, increased risk of suicide, Parkinson’s and dementia, according to the Boston University CTE Research Center.
Interviews with current and former UW-Madison football players show that despite concussion education programs mandated by the NCAA, some players describe staying in games after plays that left them temporarily disoriented.
In 2015, former Badgers linebacker Chris Borland rocked the National Football League when he quit the San Francisco 49ers after one year over fears of brain injury.
Borland, 27, told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that a scan has shown blood flow in parts of his brain is on par with a person in his 60s. Asked if the condition is reversible, Borland said, “Hope so. No one knows.”
The NFL has agreed to set aside a projected $1 billion for claims of former athletes suffering from brain injuries caused by concussions.
UW-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin are among 32 institutions participating in the Concussion, Assessment, Research and Education (CARE) Consortium, a $30 million study funded by the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense examining the nature and effects of concussions among 37,896 college athletes and military trainees. Another UW-Madison study looks at how students who have had concussions perform in the classroom.
‘Bell rung’ — but no concussion?
Although some players interviewed for this article said they are not concerned about concussions, several recounted their experiences in getting their “bell rung.”
Sophomore receiver A.J. Taylor, who claims to have never had a concussion, said, “I’ve gotten my bell rung plenty of times.”
He described the feeling as being “kind of dazed a little,” but added, “If you can get back up and play, then I think you’re good. I don’t ever think about concussions. I don’t think about concussions or injuries and all that. I play and leave it to God.”
Scott Doberstein, an athletic trainer whose career includes 16 years as UW-La Crosse’s head trainer, said the term is obsolete and misleading. “If you’re saying you got a bell ringer or dinged or dazed, it’s probably a concussion,” he said.
Culture shift needed
Throughout their careers, football players have been told not to play scared and to hit opponents hard. Now, though, they are being lectured: Protect your head.
For Michael Moll, assistant athletic director of sports medicine at UW-Madison, and his staff, this is the battle they wage every year: Trying to get student athletes to absorb and heed the warnings about concussions.
“They kind of turn themselves off to it,” Moll said. “They’ve already heard it. I think that’s a little bit of a challenge.”
Doberstein said it will take a drastic shift in football culture to take concussions more seriously.
“Look at all of the sexual harassment stuff that has been under the carpet and the #MeToo stuff. We need something like that for concussion. We need people to come out and say, ‘This is not good. We shouldn’t be hiding it,’” Doberstein said.
At UW-Madison, the CARE Consortium study is exploring the effects of blows to the head — even those in which an athlete has exhibited no symptoms, said Dr. Alison Brooks, an associate professor in the Department of Orthopedics and the principal investigator at the Madison site.
Another study at UW-Madison is exploring the effects of concussions on high school and college students’ academic performance. Traci Snedden, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Nursing, is leading the research, which began with 60 UW-Madison students who had suffered concussions under a variety of circumstances, such as while playing sports, falling on the ice or in a scooter crash. It has been expanded to high school students in the Madison and Milwaukee areas.
Snedden said students reported struggles in the classroom, including difficulty taking notes and listening to the instructor at the same time and sensitivity to light and sound.
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Managing Editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.