At least two Griz football players retired from football due to concussions in the last two seasons. But the exact number of concussions UM football players suffer each season is unknown, even by those who run the program.
Most recently, star Griz linebacker Gage Smith stopped playing football due to anxiety and depression caused by repeated concussions, and wide receiver Caleb Lyons medically retired in 2017 after his fifth concussion.
The UM athletic department doesn’t keep yearly records on how many concussions student athletes suffer, officials said. Researchers and other experts say keeping such records helps improve the treatment and understanding of head injuries for sports programs by developing research to further understand the risk of debilitating head injuries among student athletes.
But so far, the University of Montana doesn’t seem to be one of them.
In September, the Montana Kaimin filed an information request asking for compiled concussion and injury information. The university denied the request because, it says, that information isn’t kept.
Universities are not required to track, compile or publicly report the number of concussions student athletes sustain. A 2017 Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of more than 60 Division I, II and III universities in seven athletic conferences found that only about one in six athletic programs do not count student-athlete concussions by sport, despite the potential to help athlete safety.
University lawyers denied a September public records request for all or parts of records or data detailing Griz football injuries since 2012. Legal counsel said the information was irretrievable. Lucy France, UM chief legal counsel, did not respond to an email request for an interview.
Eric Taber, a UM Athletics spokesperson for football, said the only records the athletic department maintains of student athlete injuries are in the student’s personal medical files, which are protected by privacy laws.
Mike Meloy, an open records lawyer in Montana, said compiled statistics of personal records are only protected if they have personal identifying information.
The UM athletic department did not respond to multiple requests for in-person interviews about injury and concussion records, data, and treatment protocol.
“The health and safety of University of Montana student-athletes is of the utmost importance, as is their medical privacy,” Taber wrote in an email response to calls for comment.
The University regularly releases information about individual athletes and injuries, including concussions on its sports website gogriz.com. Taber said the athletic department does not discuss injuries in stories without the prior consent of the student-athletes.
“The University of Montana does not produce injury reports on a regular basis,” Taber wrote in an email.
Sarjubhai Patel, a UM assistant research professor who received a grant from the NFL to study traumatic brain injuries in 2015, said it is important for UM to compile anonymous data on concussions in student athletes.
“We need to get a handle on how often these injuries are actually happening,” Patel said. Anonymous collection concerning student-athlete head injuries would allow researchers to study long term effects of head injuries, Patel said. It would also allow for better reporting to the public.
“After a concussion, most people feel like they’re recovered and okay, but what we’re starting to know is that while the subject may feel okay outwardly, things could be continuing to change in the brain,” Patel said.
Long term symptoms of concussions can range from headaches and confusion to mood disturbances and the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.
“It’s a public health problem,” Patel said. “Sometimes (long-term symptoms) are quite severe like mood disturbances, but they can also manifest into confusion, aggression.”
University of Montana concussion and injury management protocols are under the direction of staff physicians and are available for review in the student-athlete handbook, according to the UM athletic department. A department spokesperson said the protocols are strictly followed, including concussion identification, treatment, and return to play procedures.
The student-athlete handbook describes multiple baseline assessments given prior to an athlete’s first practice. The tests include a symptom checklist and tests that are retaken if a brain injury is suspected. Steps are taken after an athlete is diagnosed with a concussion to develop a specific treatment plan including reduced cognitive use in academic classes. The athletes then meet within a year with the team physician to evaluate if there are any long-lasting symptoms.
Patel said UM is doing well with the tools available and widely used in college athletics to assess concussions and provide treatment. But the computerized and handwritten tests used to assess athletes after suspected brain injuries are limited in their scope.
“A lot of the testing we have is very subjective,” Patel said.
UM’s head athletic trainer, J.C. Weida, said no compiled concussion report exists on a sport-by-sport basis for UM athletes. However, Weida told NBC Montana in 2014 that an average of 10 to 15 students suffer concussions each year.
Concussions in contact sports gained national concern when Congress began investigating head injuries in football in the early 2000s. Since then, CTE, a brain disease associated with repeated head trauma, has become a concern for those who play high contact sports. The symptoms of CTE can show up later in life after multiple concussions and can cause personality changes including anger and suicidal behavior, memory loss, and motor-function loss.
One former Montana State University and New York Giants football player, Corey Widmer, recently declined his induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame earlier this year due to his concerns about the dangers of concussions in football.
The NCAA began conducting research with the Department of Defense on concussions in 2014. More than 30 universities collect and share data to develop insights into sports concussion neurophysiology and to improve safety protocols.
Taber said he did not know if UM athletic department participated in any voluntary reporting of concussions and injuries to the NCAA.
Ivy League football teams banned full-contact during practices in 2016, going even further than the NCAA limit on full-contact practices. This change had significant impacts on the health of players; in October 2018, the New York Times reported the rate of concussions in Ivy League players went from 11 concussions per 1,000 players to two concussions per 1,000 players in less than three years.