Collegiate Football Player Tackles Concussion Research

There are certainly stereotypes about the academic legitimacy of college athletes. Commentators and fans often joke about administrators’ insistence on referring to the players as “student-athletes.

That is why Tuesday’s press conference for the National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Class was so refreshing. Here were 16 of the nation’s best and brightest college football players, with an average GPA of 3.81, all of whom will receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship for their achievements. There were quarterbacks and linemen, business and history majors, with off-field pursuits ranging from hospital volunteering to opera singing.

One of them, Jared Karstetter, is a senior at Washington State University, in Pullman. On the field, he is a wide receiver who ranks in the top 10 in school history in receptions and touchdown catches. In the classroom, he is a zoology major holding a 3.61 GPA, and aspires to become a dentist. For his senior thesis, he has decided to research the correlation between neck strength and concussions in athletes. He is in the process of analyzing the results now, with his paper scheduled for publication in the spring.

Karstetter tested 120 athletes—football and basketball players at Washington State and soccer and basketball players at Pullman High School (including soccer players is particularly relevant given recent news on heading the ball). After reading an article in Sports Illustrated about concussions, Karstetter figured it would make an interesting topic for his thesis. His initial idea was to study whether head injuries decrease cognitive ability over a season, but after Washington State acquired a machine designed to test neck strength, he narrowed his focus.

Karstetter and his fellow researchers tested his subjects’ neck strength using a multicervial isometric machine (a device like this) before the season and then recorded any concussions the athletes suffered. He is currently reviewing the data to determine if there is in fact any correlation between neck strength and concussions.

Karstetter_2550

Karstetter has been reviewing literature to learn about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and second impact syndrome. “Second impact syndrome in particular is so preventable,” he said. “People need to realize that putting a player back in the game after he’s had a head injury, and putting them at risk for another concussion, is extremely dangerous. If we educate people about that, we can prevent it.”

Karstetter has had a few concussions during his playing career. This season, in light of his research, he has given more thought to the inherent risks of football. “Especially for a scholar-athlete, it’s scary to think there are adverse effects of playing football,” Karstetter told me during Tuesday’s event, held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.

He stressed the importance of awareness, and said he is starting to see a change in the culture. “The athletic trainers and team doctors really need to have a good grasp of the information. And the trainers are so much more cautious about holding guys out and being careful with head injuries than they used to be.

“The athletes themselves need to understand and be smart with their body. We know our bodies better than anyone else. Just understand what you’re putting yourself at risk for if you decide to continue playing with a head injury.”

Karstetter is hoping he does find a link between neck strength and concussions, and can use that information to raise awareness about concussion prevention. For now, he says the athletes must disregard the gladiator mentality often associated with contact sports. “We all want to compete and be out there playing, but as an athlete you know whether you are seriously injured. It’s not worth it to keep playing.”

–Andrew Kahn

(Photo Credit: Bob Hubner/Washington State University)

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