When Rick George and Eric McCarty were starring as football players in the 1980s, concussion “research” often involved a coach going up to a woozy athlete and asking to count the number of fingers the coach was flashing.
Those days have changed dramatically, and for more than a decade, the University of Colorado has been among the national leaders in student-athlete health and wellness.
On Thursday, George, CU’s athletic director, led a panel discussion for the board of regents. The purpose of the panel — which included McCarty, who is the chief of sports medicine and shoulder surgery for CU and the head team physician for athletics — was to inform the regents of what is being done at CU to care for the student-athletes in what is an ever-evolving field.
“We come to work every day with student athlete health and wellness and safety at the forefront of everything that we do,” George said.
In addition to McCarty, who played football at CU from 1984-87, the panel included faculty athletics representative Joe Jupille; senior associate athletic director of health and performance Miguel Rueda; professor of psychology and neuroscience Theresa Hernandez; and associate professor of integrative physiology Matt McQueen.
George and other members of the panel highlighted much of the personnel and financial resources CU has poured into the health and well-being of student athletes for several years, as well as the improvements being made.
“When I got here (in 2006), many of the programs we offer now didn’t exist,” Rueda said.
The panel members spoke about the health and wellness of all student-athletes. On the topic of concussions, panelists pointed out that studies have shown that concussions are happening across the board in all sports. When a sport such as basketball is played by both genders, McQueen said there is a higher concussion rate being seen in women’s athletes as opposed to men.
McQueen said that on campus, “over 60 percent of the concussions we see through the general student body are non-sport related.”
While concussions and brain injuries are a broad issue, regents Linda Shoemaker and Jack Kroll turned their focus to football. And, in that regard, Shoemaker, who has long been critical of the program, said not enough is being done.
During a question and answer portion, Shoemaker told George, “I honestly believe that you are doing a good job given the constraints that you are under with the Pac-12 and NCAA rules.”
Asked by the Daily Camera after the meeting, however, if CU is doing a good job of protecting football players, she said, “Not sufficiently in my view.
“Our guys are on the board of governors, they’re on the committees. They have a national voice. So, my frustration is when I feel like they’re not recognizing the realities.”
The reality, she said, is the sub-concussive impacts on the brain.
“The problem that is recently discovered in the last 10 years, is the brain rattling,” she said. “The helmets are only designed to protect the skull from fracturing, which is very important, but it doesn’t prevent the brain from hitting from side to side on every play. That is why I am particularly interested in addressing football.”
While the violent nature of football is a concern, CU’s panel of experts quickly pointed out the ever-evolving nature of the studies being done.
“We’re really just at the cusp of learning a lot of important things about recovery and how we diagnose concussions and what the best practices for treatment and care are,” McQueen told the Camera. “It’s a new field drawing new ideas, new energy into it.”
Shoemaker’s comments, which have drawn national attention, have not been popular among CU football fans, but McQueen said having the discussion is what has sparked the improvements in the medical field over the years.
“I think one of the great benefits of this type of exposure is it has raised the awareness of concussions and the importance of proper recovery and recognition,” he said.
Without discussion, coaches might still be asking woozy athletes to count fingers as a concussion test, but CU — and other schools — are doing much more than that.
“I played in the 80s and I’ve seen an evolution … in how we look at concussions,” McCarty told Shoemaker. “It has changed. We do a lot of things differently and we’re still learning about it.”
CU has been at the forefront of the research in college athletics, and George told Shoemaker, “I’ve been around the game a long time. The game has never been better. We’ve had 35 rule changes in the last five years that are geared toward player safety.”
In the future, however, Shoemaker, who said she will not be attending any CU football games this year, would like to see more being done, and she hopes CU continues to do more.
“We are uniquely positioned to actually make some changes,” she told the Camera. “The question is, what changes can we make in Boulder, Colorado? If I were still in the K-12 world, I’d be more worried about pee wee (football) than I am CU, but I’m a CU regent, so right now, for the rest of my term, this is going to be one of my main focuses.”
Brian Howell: Bhowell@prairiemountainmedia.com or on Twitter @BrianHowell33.