College football's publicly reported concussions drop 25 percent

In a worrying trend, some of the biggest programs in college football didn't acknowledge their concussions in 2014

When Kosta Karageorge was found dead in a dumpster from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his final text to his mother took on new meaning.

“I am sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all f---ed up,” the missing collegiate wrestler and walk-on defensive lineman at Ohio State wrote her the week of Thanksgiving.

Karageorge’s sister told The New York Times that he had suffered four or five concussions in his life, and experienced disorientation and mood swings as recently as September. Like many other walk-ons at major college football programs, however, Karageorge’s head trauma in his short time with the Buckeyes wasn’t made publicly known.

Kosta Karageorge suffered four or five concussions as a wrestler and college football player, but none of them were publicly acknowledged until the 22-year-old went missing last month.
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While concussions' connections to depression and suicide remains unclear, Karageorge's death has put renewed pressure on the NCAA and colleges to better protect and treat student-athletes. Last month, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., co-chair of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, urged the NCAA to address its “inadequate approach toward traumatic brain injury.” A week after Karageorge’s body was found in a dumpster by his home, the Big Ten revised its concussion protocols, moving to more regulatory standards for its 14 conference members. On Wednesday, a federal judge rebuffed the NCAA's $75 million settlement in the class-action lawsuit brought by former athletes suffering the effects of concussions, ruling that the funding devoted to testing and diagnosis was not sufficient enough to cover all the costs. 

But even amid the onslaught of attention to head injuries in contact sports in recent years, college football's reporting of concussions is actually on the decline.

According to the America Tonight Concussion Map, 143 concussions were reported in major college football this season – a decline of more than 25 percent from the 192 in the 2013 season. What’s publicly reported is still only a fraction of the thousands of concussions that occur in games and practices every season throughout every level of college football. So, the decline in reported concussions likely doesn't reflect a drop in actual concussions, but rather a decline in the public's knowledge of them. Thomas Dompier, president of the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, the group that conducts the NCAA's Injury Surveillance Program, told America Tonight in January that the 192 concussions in 2013 seemed "pretty low" and he'd "expect a lot more." 

There are several reasons why a college football program would underreport concussions. In many cases, the student-athletes themselves don't report it to their coaches, because they fear their scholarships might be revoked, or because of the tough-guy, walk-it-off culture that's existed for seemingly forever.

“We knew he had a lot of concussions,” said Michael Bennett, Karageorge’s teammate, who called him “the toughest guy” he had ever met. “But you never knew he was depressed or anything like that.” He added: “He wouldn’t tell anybody. We’d tell him to take it easy – ‘Why don’t you sit out, man? Nobody is going to judge you or anything like that, because those are serious.’”

For the last two seasons, America Tonight has compiled college football concussion data for the 129 programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, based on media reports and the public disclosures of athletic departments. (This number includes the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which recently ended its football program.) The data reveals that, by and large, programs are getting worse about publicly reporting or acknowledging instances of concussions, even as awareness of the health risk spreads.

Nearly half of the schools in major college football didn’t publicly report any concussions

The 2014 season featured a sharp spike in the number of schools that didn’t publicly report a single concussion. This season, 62 schools didn’t publicly report a concussion this season, compared to the 42 schools that didn’t during the 2013 season – an increase of almost 50 percent. 

40 percent of current Top 25 teams didn’t publicly report a concussion

Of the programs in the final regular season Top 25 poll released by the College Football Playoff committee, 10 didn’t report a concussion. (This was a slight improvement from the 11 Top 25 programs that didn’t report any in 2013.) That includes three Top 10 programs – Oregon, Mississippi State and Michigan State – that are playing in New Year’s Six bowls, the most lucrative postseason games.

More than 1 in 5 concussions came from Top 25 teams

Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty was one of the 32 players from ranked teams to have their concussions publicly reported on this season.
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Ranked teams accounted for just 22 percent of all reported concussions this season. In 2013, just 16 percent came from schools ending the season in the Top 25. There was also a fairly even split in terms of when players had concussions, with about 15 in the preseason or first half of the season and 17 in the season’s second half. 

8 concussed players were forced to retire

The culture in major college football among players is shifting to a more cautious landscape, and that was evident by the increase in players stepping away from the game before or during this season. Two more players retired this year after one or more concussions than last season. Those players include:

Quarterbacks and offensive linemen were the most likely to retire due to concussions. Two of the players who retired this year – Ash of Texas and Bak of Minnesota – also made last year’s Concussion Map. 

Florida State had almost as many concussions than the other conference champions combined

Though critics might question how good the undefeated Florida State Seminoles really are this season, they've shown their resilience in bouncing back from concussions.
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The defending national champions spent the past year escaping close games and brushing off critics, while also battling the off-the-field issues of their Heisman quarterback, Jameis Winston. But give credit to the Seminoles where credit is due: In the last two years, the program has proven to be better than others when it comes to reporting players' concussions. Florida State’s seven concussions, the second highest number of publicly reported concussions this season, compares favorably to the eight publicly reported concussions from the other 12 conference champions or co-champions combined. Six conference champions or co-champions didn’t publicly report a single concussion this season. The Seminoles also recorded six concussions last year, which was the second highest total among the 10 conferences and the independents. 

The University of Colorado notched the most concussions with 10

Amid a 2-10 season filled with more lows than highs, Colorado's acknowledgement of their player concussions counts as a win on the health and safety front. With a big jump from their two reports last year, the Buffaloes accounted for half of the Pac-12’s total reported concussions in 2014. Hawaii, last year’s concussion king with nine, didn’t report a single one this year. 

The Mountain West Conference leads the pack again with 25 concussions

No conference has been as up front about reporting head trauma in the last two years as the Mountain West. Eight of its 12 schools reported at least one concussion, the highest rate among FBS conferences. The Mountain West led all conferences last year with 26 concussions. Among the 10 conferences and the independent teams in the FBS, four conferences saw an increase in reported concussions over 2013.

Three of the four College Football Playoff teams reported zero or one concussion

The trophy for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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While Florida State has been a leader in concussion reporting, the other three programs in the inaugural playoff trail far behind. Oregon hasn’t reported a concussion this season and only had one last year. Alabama and Ohio State both reported one each of the past two seasons. In the case of the Buckeyes, Karageorge’s concussion was only made public when his sister told the Times. Ohio State team physicians and coaches have not commented on his medical history, but Coach Urban Meyer showed his support for the school’s handling of medical matters involving their football players in a Dec. 1 news conference: “This is the best group of medical people I’ve ever been around.”

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