Earlier this month, Colgate implemented a new head trauma protocol for varsity athletes. While in-game concussion rules are typically dictated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or Patriot League, the new Head Injury Management Program aims to revamp the way head trauma is approached within Colgate’s Athletics Department. Colgate’s Head Athletic Trainer Steve Chouinard noted that while Colgate’s previous concussion procedures were fairly effective, the new plan is unique in its proactive approach to limiting the mechanisms of head trauma in practice.
Colgate’s new program has four main parts. First, it prioritizes head-trauma education. Coaches, athletic staff and athletes are thoroughly educated on concussions, their symptoms and their consequences.
The plan secondly supports timely diagnosis. Several Colgate teams participate in annual neuro-cognitive testing, and all athletes perform basic balance tests; these test results are used as baselines. In the event of a possible concussion, players are tested in both areas again. Should there be a notable difference between a player’s baseline scores and in-practice performance, he or she could not be allowed to play. When diagnosing head trauma, trainers look for a broad range of symptoms, including balance problems, nausea, confusion and sensitivity to light.
Third, the protocol outlines a process for concussed athletes to return to competition. Athletes are tested daily until their cognitive and balance test scores align with their pre-concussion results. Then, players ease back into their routine. They are first limited to “light, non-impact, non-jarring physical activity,” slowly progress past “non-contact training” and eventually return to full participation. It usually takes about six days for a player to return from a concussion.
Lastly, players with head trauma are explicitly ordered to rest, avoiding even the cognitive stress of academics, which can worsen symptoms.
Vinny Russo, a senior on Colgate’s football team, described the change as cultural. In his opinion, while concussions are perhaps inevitable in football, the new protocol aims to eliminate the head-first, violent hits that football has glorified for years.
“The culture has changed among football players,” Russo said. “Players understand the safety concerns of concussions, and have started to avoid leading with their head.”
Russo also noted that while the new culture represents a safer football environment, the new protocols have not diminished quality of play.
“More isn’t always better. It’s something of an ‘old school’ concept to think that you have to beat up on each other in practice to ensure proper technique … We don’t anticipate a reduction in the quality of play,” Chouinard said.
Russo also noted that Colgate’s coaching staff is meticulous. Players with even a possible concussion are never allowed to continue playing. The emphasis on health and safety is clear, even in the team’s uniforms; much of the apparel is designed and selected with health concerns in mind.
“The healthier the team, the greater possibility of success,” Chouinard said.
Recently, head trauma in athletes has become a hot-button sports issue. Blows to the head are common in high-contact sports, and overwhelming evidence suggests that repeated head trauma has long-term consequences for mental health and development. Sports science is a steadily evolving field. When new technologies emerge, head trauma becomes better understood and concussion procedures adapt. The new procedures are not limited to football players; hockey, soccer, and other high-intensity sports are likewise affected.