By Sara Ganim, Joseph Hastings and Tori Whidden
August 9, 2020
Below is a transcript of episode 1. We encourage you to listen to the episode. It was written to be heard, not to be read.
Sara Ganim narration: In this episode …
FOX Business: Rising football star, and he gave it all up after suffering concussions.
Sara Ganim narration: One of the biggest changes to sport in the last decade, is a recognition about the importance of head injuries.
WCVB Channel 5 Boston: For the first time, researchers have detected a protein linked to CTE.
CNN: An autopsy has confirmed experimental tests that detected CTE.
NCAA: The ncaa has decided to do the largest study ever done in the history of concussion.
Sara Ganim narration: But some of the universities claim to be leaders in the field of research.
Joe Hastings: No data, no data, no data.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: “I’m honestly shocked that they claim to not have that data. That is very, very surprising.”
Sara Ganim narration: From the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, I’m Sara Ganim, and you’re listening to an episode of ‘Why Don’t We Know’ the podcast that dives deep into data and comes out with real stories. For a few years now, the narrative coming from universities is that sports, particularly football are safer than ever
Charlotte Observer: The game is safer than it has ever been in the history of the game
Dayton 24/7 Now: We’re promoting a better safer game
Sara Ganim narration: But we’ve never really seen the numbers. Are concussions actually happening less than they were before?
The logical way of answering this question is to look at the aggregate data. Were there actually fewer head injuries in the 2019 season than there were ten years ago? So we asked about 100 public universities across the country. We asked them for their aggregate numbers, broken down by sport for the past ten years.
And if they didn’t have data for ten years we said, that’s ok, give us as many years as you’ve got. So if they didn’t start tracking until, say, three years ago, we still want to see that. I’m going to cut to the chase here, the answer is really unsatisfying.
We just don’t know if head injuries are declining. And the reason we don’t know is more than one third of the major universities that we asked and I’m talking about major conference powerhouses they don’t know either. And they don’t know because they’re not tracking it.
Sara Ganim narration: Hi Joe, are you ready?
Joe Hastings narration: Hi Sara, yes, I’m ready.
Sara Ganim narration: Joe Hastings is the reporter for this episode. Joe, you filed a lot of these requests for information, tell me what you got back.
Joe Hastings narration: We saw some really inconsistent data. On the whole, universities are all over the place with how they track head injuries.Some don’t track by sport, some don’t track by year. It’s hard to see real trends because there is no consistency. Some schools gave us really helpful information. Some schools gave us information for only football. Ten universities just flat out ghosted us. They didn’t respond at all.
And a really surprising number of universities responded, but said they had nothing to share. They simply don’t track head injury trends.
Sara Ganim narration: I’m going to be honest, this was really surprising and not at all what I expected to see, that so many public universities are not tracking head injuries in the most basic way.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and that includes some large, well-known schools, like, the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and UCLA, Ohio State, three major Florida schools, Florida State and the University of Florida and Central Florida had no data. Also, Indiana University, Purdue University, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, schools you routinely hear about because of their major football programs.
Sara Ganim narration: Zero record of concussions? That seems, I don’t know, improbable?
Joe Hastings narration: It was pretty shocking to see. And of course, it is definitely not accurate.
Fox Business: Number 7 back in the game after what looked like could have been a concussed hit
Joe Hastings narration: We know concussions happen, and often it’s because they are covered by the media
Fox Business: Alex does have a concussion
Joe Hastings narration: Talked about by coaches
Florida State Football TV: This time of year i think everybody’s got bumps and bruises
Sara Ganim narration: So for a university to say they have no aggregate data, what that really means is they’re not looking at overall trends.The only thing they have to go by when saying things like, the “game is safer than ever,” are isolated cases. And for some of these universities, the isolated examples certainly don’t make their case.
Joe Hastings narration: I immediately thought of the University of Michigan, which told us, “Your request is denied because responsive records do not exist.” But when you google Michigan and concussions, this is what comes up: a September 2014 game where quarterback Shane Morris gets a pretty bad concussion, live on TV.
ABC World News: It’s a play almost painful to watch
Joe Hastings narration: It’s a game versus Minnesota, Michigan is losing badly, so badly there’s basically no chance they can make a comeback, and starting quarterback Shane Morris is limping on his left leg. You can hear the play-by-play announcers for ESPN reacting to his injuries.
Business Insider: There’s Morris, he couldn’t step into that one. Trying to get the ball out to Francis. Morris can’t move. He is having a hard time with that left leg
Sara Ganim narration: When I was watching this, it seems like a painful amount of time goes by where Morris is limping around the field, clearly in pain.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and that’s the same reaction the announcers were having, and then Minnesota defensive lineman Theiren Cockran hits Morris really powerfully near his head and Shane Morris falls to the ground.
Business Insider: That is targeting. He drops his head. If it is forceful contact and it moves up. I can not believe Cockran is not called for targeting.
Joe Hastings narration:You see him put his hands around his helmet and just lay there for a few seconds on the field. But to everyone’s surprise, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke leaves him in for one more play, this as you can imagine just leaves everybody stunned.
Business Insider: I got to tell you right now that the fact number 7 is still in this game is appalling it is, appalling that he was left in on that play to throw the ball again as badly as he was hit by Cockran, and Cockran should’ve been ejected for targeting and this next week… but to have number 7 in the game on a gimpy leg after a hit like that, that is terrible looking after a young player.
Joe Hastings narration: So another quarterback comes in for the next few plays, but then his helmet comes off during a first down run, and ncaa rules say, he has to sit out at least one play. So back into the game comes Morris.
Business Insider: Shane Morris cannot be going back into this game. This young man looked groggy after that hit. He’s being put back onto the field. He can barely stand up. This is not good player management. We’ve talked about player safety in this game, guys getting hit in the head. This is atrocious to me.
Joe Hastings narration: Morris just basically hands off the ball and limps back to the sideline. At the press conference after the game, head coach Brady Hoke says:
KMBC 9 : Guys play beat up every day. If they’re not beat up a little bit, they’re never 100 percent, then we need to, um, they’re not doing much.
Joe Hastings narration: Michigan later admits that Morris suffered a “probable mild concussion and a high ankle sprain,” and athletic director Dave Brandon apologized for the fact that he came back into the game. By the end of the season, the athletic director resigned and the head coach was fired.
Sara Ganim narration: So when we asked Michigan for a record of concussions, Michigan said “there are no responsive records,” but I mean, this was so high profile. Are they saying there is no record of this?
Joe Hastings narration: Well, there might be in Morris’s file, a record of his injuries, but there is no overall tabulation of concussions for the team for that year. In fact, when we pressed Michigan on this, they confirmed that they do not keep track of concussions that way.
Sara Ganim narration: The way that public records requests work, it’s literally a document request not an information request. So if Michigan doesn’t keep track of overall concussion this way, they are not required to create a record by, let’s say, going into individual player files and counting.
Joe Hastings narration: And that’s a scenario that played out over and over again at many schools, of all sizes.
Sara Ganim narration: But the other scenario that played out, over and over again, is that at all but two of the universities that said they had no record, we were quickly and easily able to find news reports showing they had plenty of concussions.
KZ Clip: He be out this game, It was earlier in the game. He was injured and continued to play.
Sara Ganim narration: Their players are concussing, they’re just not keeping track of overall trends.
Joe Hastings narration: Some of the most surprising examples, I’d say, are the ones where universities claim to have big concussion research clinics.
Sara Ganim narration: UNC comes to mind.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and Ohio State, too.
Wexler Medical: The Ohio State University Wexler Medical Center is shaping the future of medicine
Joe Hastings narration: Ohio State told us they did not have any records, yet, there was a highly publicized stretch, in the fall of 2018 where several buckeye football players were suffering concussions.
Ozone: You just have to, after that purdue game I just felt bad I couldnt be there for my boy
Joe Hastings narration: And at UNC.
NCAA: “We have the accelerometers in our helmets. We’re able to measure the impacts on their hits.”
Joe Hastings narration: UNC touts one of the best concussions research programs in the country. This is Larry Fedora, who was the head football coach for six years, talking to the press in July 2018.
UNC Observer: We’ve got Kevin Guskiewicz, who is one of the leaders in studying concussions across this country. You’ve got the retired players from the NFL come to Chapel Hill
Joe Hastings narration: Meanwhile, they also have no aggregate record, so they can’t see if the concussion rate is going up or down with their own players.
News Observer: I had extreme headaches and dizziness. I just couldn’t operate my everyday life.
Joe Hastings narration: We know that at least three players had concussions during the in which they claim they have no data to share. And we know this because, again, they were high profile enough to be covered by the media. Probably the most high profile example …
Fox Business: “Hi I’m Tommy Hatton”
Joe Hastings narration: Is Tommy Hatton. Tommy Hatton was a four star recruit coming out of high school, won rookie of the week in his Redshirt freshman season at UNC, he had a promising football career ahead of him. But by 2017 he’d suffered four concussions. This is what he told FOX business host Stuart Varney in an interview in 2018.
Fox Business: I couldn’t go to class. I had to wear glasses inside. That’s very extreme, like, circumstances. A concussion can last just a week of having mild headaches, but mine was very extreme.
Joe Hastings narration: He decides to hang up his cleats.
Sara Ganim narration: Quit football?
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and focus on his health.
World Business: Football is such a reactionary game. I think concussions are impossible to eliminate.
Sara Ganim narration: But again, UNC told us they had no responsive documents.
Joe Hastings narration: Right, and it’s even more intriguing because a lot of these schools are part of larger research studies where institutions come together to share data and study head injuries. There is a big-ten ivy league study, which Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota all who didn’t provide us records, are part of. And then there’s an even bigger partnership between the NCAA and the US Department of Defense, it’s called the care consortium.
NCAA: This is really unique, really one of its kind. Bringing all this expertise from across the country, and only the NCAA
Joe Hastings narration: It stands for concussion assessment research and education, and the goal is to study participants to assess long-term effects of concussions and exposure to repetitive head impacts. There are 30 colleges across the country who participate, and three of them, Michigan and UNC, who we’ve mentioned, but also UCLA, all told us they had no data.
Sara Ganim narration: So wait, let me make sure I have this straight, three schools that are supposed to be providing data to this care consortium in order to help concussion research move forward, all told us that they don’t actually have any data?
Joe Hastings narration: So, it’s a little complicated, because the consortium is a voluntary program for athletes. But you would think that universities that are participating in this huge effort to see how concussions affect players over a lifetime, would also have the structure to keep basic data about how many concussions were happening each year. Some places, like the University of Washington, which is also part of the Care Consortium, they did provide us with data. But it was really surprising to see that’s not the case with many others.
Sara Ganim narration: For the record, we reached out to all 32 schools that told us they had no data to ask them why that is. One, Georgia Southern, ended up providing the data after all. But from the rest, honestly, we didn’t get very many explanations. Most schools just doubled down, saying they don’t have anything to share.
Joe Hastings narration: A few places, like Georgia, Florida State, and Purdue told us they couldn’t share the information for privacy reasons. Florida State even went as far as saying, “the manner in which we track is “protected health information.”
Sara Ganim narration: Wait, they are trying to say that the way they track is protected? I mean, we’re not asking for any identifying information. We were just asking for a number, and that’s not protected health information.
Joe Hastings narration: Right, and I think it’s important to mention something about player injuries and privacy. People might be listening to this thinking that universities are holding back this information because of HIPAA, the privacy act related to healthcare. But there are two reasons that’s not true. One, HIPAA doesn’t apply to non-identifiable information. So, telling us that the football team had say, 15 concussions, this year, and 30 last year, that’s not revealing personal medical information. The second reason that explanation fails, is that every student athlete in the country signs a waiver allowing universities to talk about their injuries. think about it. You hear coaches talk about injuries during press conferences every. single. day. all season long. it’s a major, major part of how the sport is covered. In fact, we found a bunch of examples from these very schools of coaches discussing head injuries.
Sara Ganim narration: There was one answer for why data can’t be shared, that really stood out to me. It came from the largest university in the country, the University of Central Florida.
Although Central Florida is a public institution in a state with some of the best open records laws in the country, there’s a way for universities to hide certain records. And it’s done by creating private foundations, which function practically as an arm of the university. But because they are private on paper, they don’t need to respond to records requests.
In this case, the private foundation at UCF is the athletic association. UCF flat out told us the records we wanted are part of the athletic association, and therefore they are not public.
We’re going to talk about this broader issue a little later in the season, how public universities are creating private entities to provide cover from public scrutiny.But it’s worth mentioning in this episode, because of the hypocrisy of this particular situation at the University of Central Florida.
Wesh 2 News:a redshirt freshman, was rushed to the hospital
Sara Ganim narration: In 2008, a UCF football player dropped dead on the practice field. His name was Ereck Plancher.
Today Show: 19 year old player, Ereck Plancher collapsed
Wesh 2 News: Is dead after off season conditioning drills on campus
Wesh 2 News: The university’s coaching and training staff were responsible for his death during practice in 2008
Sara Ganim Narration: His family sued the university’s athletic association, but lost. Why? The association claimed it was immune from litigation because it was a public, state institution, and state institutions are immune from litigation. So when it’s convenient, UCF’s athletic association is private, and when it’s convenient, it is also not private. Our research shows this is the case in several states.
This is Why Don’t We Know. We couldn’t have made this podcast without research and reporting help from students at the University of Florida. You can help support them, by making a donation to our student scholarship fund. You can find the information on our website www.whydontweknow.org
Sara Ganim Narration: Let’s go back eight years to a moment that really changed how society views head injuries
ABC News: For 20 years, he was a warrior on the field
Joe Hastings narration: The big thing that really caused everyone to wake up to the problem of head injuries
ABC News: Junior Seau, the monster in the middle. A defensive icon who’s devastation hits, more than 1,850 tackles in his career, knocked out opponents
Joe Hastings narration: Was the death of Junior Seau
CBS News: She returned to the residence to find Mr. Seau unconscious suffering from a gunshot wound to the chest.
Joe Hastings narration: Seau was a former NFL player, a star athlete, and he took his own life at the age of 43.
ABC News: After his sudden and shocking suicide. Some speculating he knew his brian needed to be preserved for examination
Joe Hastings narration: His family donated his brain to the national institutes of health following his death.
ABC News: A team of doctors confirmed that he suffered from degenerative brain disease which could be linked to the years he spent taking blows and giving them on the football field.
Joe Hastings narration: And they found that he had something called chronic traumatic
encephalopathy. It’s commonly known now as CTE, but back then, almost no one had heard of it.
Sara Ganim narration: I remember this so vividly, and at the time I was one of those people who hadn’t heard of CTE. But Junior Seau really became a household name.
Joe Hastings narration: Seau’s death was a huge wake up call, and it caused major change in the sport.
ABC News: Praising a settlement over the concussion lawsuit. The payout is 765 million dollars over 20 years
Joe Hastings narration:Within a year, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 retired players, who accused the league of not revealing a link between traumatic brain injuries and professional football. That then sparked a national conversation about head trauma in sports, and it trickled down to the collegiate level and to youth sports, too.
Sara Ganim narration: Parents began voicing concerns about their children participating in football.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and the NFL launched a “heads up football” program, which emphasizes a smarter and safer way to play and teach youth football. And it wasn’t just football. Seau’s death created awareness in any sport where someone is prone to suffering repeated head injuries, that this could have life-long effects.
Sara Ganim narration: Since Seau’s death, the science around head injuries has certainly improved and general awareness has too. But after we saw that there’s no data to show that, at least at the college level, football is safer than ever, we started to look for other trends. If we can’t see head injury trends, what can we see?
Surveys conducted by the National Trainers Association over the last ten years show that year after year trainers report that coaches push them to put players back into the game after head injuries. And even though progress has been made from a medical standpoint, the numbers indicate that progress isn’t being made from a cultural standpoint.
Seven years ago, about half of trainers said they felt pressure by football coaches to clear players who weren’t medically ready. Just last year, in 2019, that number went up by 8 percent and 19 percent of trainers said coaches are playing players who aren’t medically cleared. The numbers actually got worse.
Joe and I talked a little bit about this, about how cultural changes are still very much needed at the college level.
Joe Hastings narration: One really good example of that actually happened a couple of years ago at UNC again, a school that said they had no data former head coach Larry Fedora faced a lot of criticism for comments he made relating to head injuries and football during a press conference in 2018.
Fedora: “But the game is better than it’s ever been. I believe the game is under attack right now. I really do. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose what the game is all about.”
Reporter: “Who do you think is, to use your word, is attacking the game?”
Fedora: *long pause* Reporter: “Blaming us?”
Fedora: “No, I’m not blaming you. I’m not blaming anybody. I blame a groundswell of data that is tweaked one way or the other. I can take the data and I can make it look one way, and you can take the data and make it look another way, and whoever is presenting it is the one that gets the say-so.”
Joe Hastings narration: What was really controversial about the situation is that Fedora later said he wasn’t convinced that there’s a link between football and CTE. Here is what he said when clarifying those comments.
Reporter: CTE and football relationship. I didn’t know if you wanted to clarify what exactly your thoughts are on that.
Fedora: I don’t know if clarification is the right word. It’s more about what I said. I’m not sure that anything is proven that football, itself, causes it.
Sara Ganim narration: So, if anyone’s wondering if this is really still a problem, it is. Joe, you talked to a couple of the schools that are part of these big research studies, schools that did provide us with data. One of them is Rutgers University. From the data you got back it looked like theirs was probably the most comprehensive and really by that, what I mean is, it’s what you would think any university would want to have in order to keep track of head injuries in a complete way.
Joe Hastings narration: That’s right, Sara.
Sara Ganim narration: And the other is the University of Washington.
Joe Hastings narration: Both schools really stood out in terms of the data they provided to us, and so I decided to call them and chat with them about how this data is beneficial – how it helps them do a better job protecting athletes.
Sara Ganim narration: This is so important because in reporting with you for this episode, I did hear from people who would say things like, why is this even necessary? Why does it matter if all of this data is compiled in one central spreadsheet, and these people explain that.
Joe Hastings narration: That’s right. Let’s start with Rutgers.
Kyle Brostrand: My name is Kyle. I’m an athletic trainer at Rutgers university. I also am the coordinator of concussion management and research with the department.
Joe Hastings Narration: Kyle told me that in 2014, when he started at Rutgers, there really was no tracking system in place.
Kyle Brostrand: There was no data collected on an epidemiological scale. It was more of an individual case by case basis. The physicians would handle individual concussions and the athletic trainers would handle the visible concussions together and they would hail that. All that data would just be collected in the student athletes medical record.
Sara Ganim narration: That sounds like it’s in line with what a lot of schools told us they are doing right now.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, but what Kyle said is that when Rutgers began participating in research, around 2015, they realized there was a huge benefit to tracking head injuries by the numbers to see how many were occurring in each sport, and when. And they found that tracking head injuries as a whole had a huge added benefit for their student athletes as individuals.
Kyle Brostrand: I can just say for what we would do at Rutgers universities is just try and be detailed, see if we can find trends, see how we can help our student athletes on a day to day basis and just try and make what we do at Rutgers athletics safer.
Joe Hastings narration: He explains why
Kyle Brostrand: It’s sure tough for coaches to change practices, right? They want to see the practice of how they play. So they want to see results and they want to see data in front of them. So if we were able to tell a coach that, “hey, during this specific drill you had a high frequency of concussions, a disproportionate amount of concussions,” then that might be a way to make your practice safer and to put it in there. I’m sure they obviously are. They care about their status but they also think about days lost for student athletes as far as practicing and getting better. So they want to think of it that way. So if there’s something that they can change that will allow them to practice safer and to keep guys healthy, they will do that.
Sara Ganim narration: This is a really important point. This isn’t really so much about making this data public to people like us, it’s about universities having this data for themselves so they can deliver on their promises to keep athletes safe. We didn’t ask these schools to create these documents just for our benefit. That’s not how public records requests work. We asked them for the documents they already have, and if they didn’t provide them, well, that means they aren’t tracking head injuries in this way, and the people that really hurt the most are the student athletes.
The other school that collected some good data, the University of Washington, when I listened to your interview with the associate athletic director for health and wellness, I thought he brought up a really interesting point too about what happens if we stop making progress on this issue. What happens if we can’t make these sports safer?
Joe Hastings narration: That’s such a big part of why this is so important. How do we move forward, if universities are still resistant to tracking this data. Here’s what Robert Scheidegger told me:
Robert Scheidegger: You got to start somewhere. These mild traumatic brain injuries or what people call concussion, those are really difficult to diagnose and they still have yet to identify a gold standard for doing a diagnostic test. I think right now we’re just trying to be a part of that solution by gathering as much information as we possibly can.
And we want to keep going down that road because we want people participating in sports. We want people being active. We want people to grow up feeling safe and feeling like it’s okay to have their kids participate in all different types of sports, whatever they’re interested in because we know how valuable sports are to our society and to the development of children and the development of young adults and all the lessons that can be learned there. And so what we want to do is continue to try to create as much safe environment for sport participation as we possibly can.
Sara Ganim narration: Joe, we’ve been talking a lot about football, which I know is very important to do when discussing head injuries because of the nature of the sport. But what about the other teams? Maybe the ones that are not revenue-generating sports? How are they affected by this?
Joe Hastings narration: It’s a really important question, because so many of the resources have been focused on football, and we saw this in the data. Some universities said that we can give you information, but we only keep data for one sport, and that’s football, so for the rest, we have nothing to hand over.
Sara Ganim narration: With everything we know about head injuries, you’d think that any athletic program would want to know if the numbers in sports other than football are trending up or down? Maybe in a sport where you might not expect it? To see if you need to hire more staff, or better equipment, or have different protocols in place.
Joe Hastings narration: Yes, and some universities might have that kind of surveillance program in place, maybe a very good concussion monitoring program in place, for a revenue generating team, like football, but not for a team that isn’t as popular. And in fact, we saw a perfect example of that at the University of Texas.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: It took over my life, but in a good way. I think cheer really shifted who I am today.
Joe Hastings narration: When we asked Texas for the numbers of concussions of their athletes for the last ten years, they responded by telling us they only kept that data for football. That means that there’s no way for them to see if head injuries are trending upward or downward in other sports. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk for those other athletes who, for the purposes of this data, are essentially invisible.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I did competitive cheer, so if you think of that Netflix show, “Cheer” that everyone is watching right now, that is what I grew up doing.
Joe Hastings narration: We talked to one, Kaitlyn Benkhe. She was a University of Texas cheerleader between 2013 and 2015.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I made the team, I was so excited.
Joe Hastings narration: But before Kaitlyn even arrived on campus, she had suffered three documented concussions. The first one came in her freshman year of high school.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: So my very first one.
Joe Hastings narration: But starting sophomore year, the head injuries were piling up.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: So I suffered one spring of 2015, and then I got two more.
Joe Hastings narration: When Kaitlyn quit cheer, she thought she’d concussed 5 times.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I got three within seven months in 2015, kind of between spring and summer. And that was what really set me into my post concussion syndrome.
Joe Hastings narration: But when she talked to her doctors about her symptoms and her medical history.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: So all of the force of four girls throwing one girl in the air went right into my jaw, dislocated my jaw and gave me another concussion.
Joe Hastings narration: She realized she’d probably suffered many more that went undiagnosed and untreated while she was in high school and college.
Joe Hastings: So that one was never diagnosed by a doctor then?
Kaitlyn Benkhe: No. And actually the third one was not either.
Joe Hastings: What about some of your other teammates?
Kaitlyn Benkhe: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I remember at one time having three or four girls out with concussions at practice. It’s kind of part of the nature of cheerleading. It’s very dangerous, trying new things and everything.
Sara Ganim narration: So it sounds like there are a lot of reasons why Kaitlyn’s head injuries went untreated.
Joe Hastings narration: Right, and Kaitlyn doesn’t blame anyone in particular for that.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I always think people sometimes want to have someone to blame for things like this, and people tend to go to the universities, and maybe that’s true in most cases. I have no idea. But in my case, UT really took care of me. I would say that the knowledge in general just wasn’t there. So, no one knew to keep me out longer, or at one point I got that concussion in February of 2015, and then I hit my head at a practice about two or three months later and it was kind of like, “We’ll watch her.” And then looking back I’ve had doctors tell me, yes I should have sat out after that for a while again, and I didn’t. But no one knew that. I mean, the athletic trainers at the time just didn’t have that information.
I started getting gut symptoms like food sensitivities. Well, we had no idea that those were probably related to the concussions, because I hadn’t seen someone about them. There’s just a lot of clarity that probably could have come from seeing someone and addressing it at the moment. But without doing that, your brain just does what it can to compensate, maybe never actually healing.
Joe Hastings narration: Kaitlyn is only 26 years old, but she says her doctors estimate she’s had more concussions than most people.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: Somewhere between seven and 11. For me, it got to a point where it was just so easy to get a concussion. Actually, your second concussion, you’re three times more likely to get one.
After your second one, to get your third one, you’re eight times more likely. So it just keeps going up from there. I ended up just hitting my head on a metal door one time, standing up too fast and got a concussion that way just because my brain was so susceptible to injury at that point. So yeah, I ended up getting a couple outside of cheer. I wouldn’t have gotten them without the ones in cheer though, I think.
Sara Ganim Narration: Her story really highlights the need for more research. I mean, when she talks about trainers just not knowing to keep her out long enough to heal. i’m really curious to know, what was kaitlyn’s reaction when you told her that none of her concussions or any of her teammates concussions, at Texas were being tracked?
Joe Hasting narration: Yeah, so here’s that part of our conversation.
Joe Hastings: This next question here, it’s going to be a little bit prolonged and just interrupt me if I need to clarify anything. So essentially what this podcast project that we’re doing here, we sent out roughly a 100 Freedom of Information Act requests to different universities with one of them being the University of Texas at Austin. And essentially, I’m going to read you quote by quote what we asked for.
We sent out, on September 24th, 2019 requesting any tabulations or documents reflecting the number of concussions reported affecting student athletes for the last 10 calendar years, specific to each sport, or if 10 years of data was not available, any information matching the description in bullet point one. We were able to receive a response from UT Austin. They said that the data we requested was not routinely collected by the intercollegiate athletics here at the university, and then they said that the only existing data that they had regarding student athlete concussions in the past five seasons, 2014 through 2018 of data, was for the sport of football. Now that’s a long question.
Kaitlyn Benkhe: No, I’m with you.
Joe Hastings: So, you understand everything that I just said there. What was your reaction to the University of Texas response?
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I think that’s crazy. I mean, yeah, on the one hand, I think that’s crazy and on the other hand I get it. It’s really hard to implement a system like that in a school of 52,000 people. So, I understand resistance to it, but I do think that they still need to do it. Of course. I mean, it’s crazy that they haven’t as a school in the Big 12 and such a powerful athletic university, I’m honestly shocked that they claim to not have that data. That is very, very surprising.
Sara Ganim narration: Kaitlyn Behnke has now started a company called Concussion Network, with the goal of helping people like her who are in post-concussion syndrome and don’t know where to get help.
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Sara Ganim narration: Ok, let’s talk big picture here for a minute to wrap this up.Head injuries can be a matter of life or death, and when that’s what’s at stake, you really have to wonder, why wouldn’t a university want to know, for their own benefit, how big of a problem concussions are among their athletes?
Why not track? Why not know if the problem is trending up or trending down? Why not know if measures and policies are effective? It seems like the approach for so many, too many,universities is just well, you don’t have to fix a problem that you don’t, or won’t know about. But if colleges are actually serious about reducing head injuries, you can’t possibly fulfill this objective without counting and tracking them.
We see regularly that agencies refuse to track information that they know will look bad.
In this episode, more than any other in this podcast, it appears that’s what’s happening at a lot of public universities. Universities with giant, money-making sports programs, with more than enough means to do better.
Universities are historically resistant to scrutiny, we know that. and you’ll hear a lot about that during this podcast. but within universities, athletic departments are especially resistant to outside scrutiny. They are especially secret. And normally, the best way to remedy that, is a government regulatory agency setting rules and enforcing those rules. something like I don’t know, the NCAA?
In fact, on paper, the ncaa would be perfect for this job. After all, the NCAA was created in the early 1900s by president teddy roosevelt for the sole purpose of making the sport of football safer. But more than 100 years later, the ncaa says that health and safety is left up to the universities, they are trusted to police themselves. I talked to Joe about this.
Joe Hastings narration: The NCAA does have something called the injury surveillance program. The ISP, which began in 1982. The ISP is a data collection initiative designed to track and analyze medical illnesses and injuries resulting from sport participation. Sport-related concussions obviously fit in that description. There is also national high school sports-related injury surveillance system study, which is modeled after the ncaa isp.
Sara Ganim narration: But the problem is these programs are completely voluntary. At the college level, there is not even a requirement that a participating school send in data for every sport. so a university could choose to only submit for two to three sports per season. So, you can essentially have one school send in data for football and women’s volleyball in the fall, and another send in data for men’s soccer and women’s soccer in the same time period. There’s no real set uniformity.
Joe Hastings narration: The program is also inconsistent. It relies completely on certified athletic trainers reporting this data on a consistent basis. At the high school level, some schools cannot afford a full-time athletic trainer. so, they are automatically eliminated from providing data to the surveillance program. Also, some sports, like girls gymnastics, boys volleyball and girls tennis, have been completely removed from the study.
Sara Ganim narration: So these programs are not very effective.
Joe Hastings narration: Overall, to answer your question, these programs have the potential to be effective. But until all schools and all sports participate, there will always be gaps in data.
Sara Ganim narration: Of all the explanations that we got, from universities, and the NCAA, no one addresses this issue. And the bottom line is, gaps in data only hurt the athletes. No one else. Just ask Kaitlyn.
Joe Hastings: What needs to be done, in your opinion. What steps do you believe need to be taken?
Kaitlyn Benkhe: I think it needs to come from the NCAA, personally. I think it really needs to be a NCAA push for all, in order to be a competitive school, in order to even play a game of football through the NCAA you have had to complete X, Y and Z on the concussion side. I think they need to educate athletes first of all, because athletes do not know about concussions well enough. They think of them as an ankle sprain or a headache, not as an actual brain injury.
Coaches need to learn more. Athletic trainers need to know more. I mean, there needs to be a big educational push. But that needs to come I think from a higher power, you know? The NCAA needs to say in order to compete at all, you have to have done these. I think it’s just a basic care thing.
Sara Ganim narration: Next time, on Why Don’t We Know.
Ramogi Huma: Their coach said that essentially the universities were talking about how the players could be used as the test subjects
Sara Ganim narration: We are going to go one step further into secrecy in athletics …
Frank LoMonte: The power differential is so profound that nobody is going to go off script.
Ramogi Huma: If they send a tweet or a post on Instagram, all of its subject to scrutiny.
Sara Ganim narration: Exploring ‘Why Don’t We Know’ from the perspective of the first amendment.
Ramogi Huma: Anything that comes up that the university doesn’t like, they can lose their scholarship.
Frank LoMonte: the idea that you have that level of control over an athlete, it’s just unprecedented. There is no class of citizens, not students, not employees, frankly, not even prison inmates that has zero first amendment protection.
Sara Ganim narration: This episode was written and produced by me, Sara Ganim.
Joseph Hastings is the main reporter. The associate producer is Tori Whidden.
In addition, Caitlin Todd, Evan Lepak, Dylan Walker, Christina Voltoline, Lillian Shipley, Victor Prieto, Kevin Smalls, Dylan Rudolph, Kaley Whitehead, Robert Lewis, Jake Hitt, Katherine Walsh, Natalie Morrison, Christopher Cantrell, Dylan Glicksman, Cristina Sinofsky and Brandon Yudin filed public records requests for this episode.
This episode was edited by Amy Fu.
Music for this episode was composed by Daniel Townsend
Audio mixing was done by Richie Taver
The executive producer is Frank LoMonte.
‘Why Don’t We Know’ is a production of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
A special thanks to the Hearst family foundation for proving the grant money that supported this reporting.
For more information, please visit our website at www.whydontweknow.org