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 matchup 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. It sidelined him temporarily from one of America’s top collegiate football squads.
“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 Badgers football players reveal 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 was chronicled in the 2015 movie “Concussion,” recommends not letting children younger than 18 play any contact sports, including football.
Omalu, now at the University of California-Davis, said even hits not deemed to be concussions can be dangerous. Every time there is a blow to the head, he said, the brain suffers microscopic injuries. The brain does not have a built-in capacity to repair these injuries, meaning such subconcussive blows can accumulate.
“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.”
Interviews with more than a dozen 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 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 Consortium, a $30 million study funded by the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense examining the nature and effects of concussion among 37,896 college athletes and military trainees. Another UW-Madison study looks at how students who have had concussions perform in the classroom.
Borland, others sound alarm
After being one of the NFL’s top rookies, Borland gave up his multimillion-dollar contract, telling ESPN he was no longer willing to trade his health for money.
Three UW-Madison football players — Hayden Biegel, Arthur Goldberg and Walker Williams — decided to leave the Badger team in 2015 after suffering brain injuries. The UW-Madison athletic department said it does not keep a running total of concussions players suffer but does report individual concussions to the NCAA for the purposes of CARE study. The athletic department declined to make that data available.
Senior receiver George Rushing, who injured his leg in an offseason practice and left the team in November, said the main problem he saw with UW’s approach to concussions is that some players ignored hits to the head as a way to get back in a game or return to practice more quickly.
NCAA schools including Wisconsin are required to have a concussion management plan that includes warning athletes about the dangers of concussion and following specific protocols when a player sustains a blow to the head. Student athletes are taught how to recognize concussions and are required to immediately report symptoms including amnesia, dizziness, confusion, nausea or fuzzy vision.
But a 2013 class-action lawsuit filed by current and former athletes against the NCAA argued those standards are too lax. A preliminary settlement requires the NCAA to set up a $70 million 50-year medical monitoring program for college athletes, spend $5 million on concussion research and make rule changes to “identify concussions early and reduce the harm of secondary injury from returning to play before fully healed.”
‘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,” Taylor said. “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,” Doberstein said. “There’s no such thing as a mild concussion anymore, there’s no such thing as a bell ringer. It’s either a concussion or it is not.”
‘I signed up for this’
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. The messages are conveyed in handouts, online education and in-person presentations from the Sports Medicine office.
“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.”
UW-Madison junior linebacker Leon Jacobs noted other sports, such as boxing, have risks.
“I signed up for this,” he said, “so I know what I’m getting myself into.”
For some, the lure of playing football at a high level now far outweighs the warnings about potential brain damage in the future.
UW-Madison cornerback Derrick Tindal, a senior, said fear of concussions does not slow him down. “I’m going to be playing at a high speed and go make plays,” he said.
The culture of denial surrounding concussions in football locker rooms runs very deep. For Doberstein, it almost gave him a black eye.
Fifteen years ago, while head athletic trainer at UW-La Crosse, a tight end had been diagnosed with a concussion during a scrimmage. In explaining the situation to the athlete’s father, things got heated.
“He got all red, he clenched his fists and he said, ‘I don’t need to hear this,’ and I said, ‘Sir I’m sorry, but we’re going to protect your son the best we can,’ “ Doberstein said. “It was surreal that I had to deal with that from a parent who wanted their kid to play despite a concussion.”
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.
Luke Schaetzel, a recent UW-Madison journalism graduate, is a freelance reporter based in Madison. Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Managing Editor Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.