“You don’t tell the trainer if you got a concussion. That’s rule number one.”
Matt Gorman vividly recalled how his football teammates in high school would routinely refuse to seek treatment for almost all injuries — including concussions. To give in to the pain, he said, would have imperiled the qualities that made them play well in the first place: bravery, tenacity, and grit.
It’s ingrained in the sport of football, Gorman argued. It was ingrained in him from a young age, and stayed with him until playing through a concussion in college left him unable to continue his sport — or his education. For the spring 2018 semester, he took a leave of absence from Penn to recover from his injuries.
But Gorman wasn't alone. During the fall 2017 season, Penn sprint football suffered an unusual level of reported severe head injuries. Three players were forced to quit the team after being diagnosed with concussions, two of whom also needed to take leaves of absence from school. All three of them continued to play for varying lengths of time after receiving their concussions, which they suggest may have exacerbated their symptoms.
And while these three players were the only ones on the team to suffer from diagnosed concussions last year, they all asserted that more than just the three of them suffered head injuries.
Gorman estimated that at least 10 of his teammates suffered and declined to seek diagnosis for concussions in the 2017 season. He, along with a number of his former teammates, described a culture that condones students' decisions to play through injuries and shy away from medical staff.
In recent years, both Penn and the Ivy League have taken extensive efforts to increase education, prevention, and treatment for head injuries. And while coaches and administrators across Penn Athletics continue to tout the progress made, interviews with over a half dozen current and former sprint football players indicate that such progress has failed to permeate throughout Penn’s fourth largest athletic program.
Editor's Note: This story is the second of a two-part series on brain injuries and Penn sprint football. Part I follows the stories of three players who suffered brain injuries in fall 2017 and have struggled to deal with the consequences.
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“A Downfall of the Culture”
Gorman started playing organized football in the third grade. Football was his life, he said. His family is a football family, and he said his parents always pushed him to use the sport to be his best.
“[My parents are] where I got the mentality of playing through injuries — if you can keep going, you can keep going,” the College sophomore said.
In his junior year of high school, Gorman tore his ACL — and played five more games after the injury. On a number of occasions, he also played on after getting up dazed from a hit or awkward fall.
“I’ve gotten countless concussions that I’ve played through,” he said, before later estimating that he has likely suffered somewhere between eight and 10.
Gorman said playing through head injuries is a common occurrence in football, including on the sprint football team at Penn. Several of his former teammates echoed the sentiment, citing both the culture ingrained in players as well as the notion that it isn’t always easy for players to tell if they are concussed.
One current player, College and Wharton senior Ryan Leone, said he wasn’t aware of many instances of teammates playing through concussions, but added that those who tend to play through injuries do so because of internal pressures, not those from teammates or coaches.
When asked if there is a widespread stigma against seeking treatment for injuries, Leone replied, “Not at all. I think the opposite is true. If you didn’t get treatment, you would be criticized severely.”
Another sprint football player who suffered a career-ending concussion last year argued that there is a difference between playing through injuries to the body and playing through injuries to the brain.
Connor Ashton doesn’t remember one specific hit in a game last October that left him concussed, but as he continued on through the first half, he knew he could feel it. He pulled himself from the game and sought treatment from medical staff at halftime.
But this was his fifth diagnosed concussion. He had played through some of his previous four.
“That is one of the things that I continue to regret the most,” said Ashton, who is on the second semester of a medical leave of absence resulting from the concussion. “If I had just come out one of those first times, it would have been a game changer in staying healthy.”
“It’s kind of a thing in football culture, to be tough and play through injuries,” Ashton continued. “I’ve had so many broken bones — probably 10 to 12 — and I’ve probably played through some of them. But in my mind, a broken bone is a lot different from the head. I’d finish a game on a broken wrist if I could, but with the head, it’s a lot more serious.”
Ashton was the only one of the three Penn sprint football players with diagnosed concussions last year who sought treatment on the same day as the injury. And the three who did seek treatment — Ashton, Gorman, and Kevin Lajeunesse — all said that there were others who suffered concussions but kept playing and never sought any treatment altogether.
“We could do more to improve the culture of saying, ‘Hey, just go get it checked out,’” Lajeunesse said.
Ashton suggested that Gorman's estimate of 10 players who played through concussions could be too high, but agreed that it is a systemic problem.
“It’s definitely a downfall of the culture in the sport right now, just not being open about it until you get to the point where you aren’t able to play anymore,” Ashton said.
According to Gorman, one of the 10 undiagnosed concussions last year was "major." However, the player, an unnamed senior, was never referred to athletic trainers, because “he wanted to keep playing.”
While it is unknown what kind of effects that player would have dealt with after playing through a major traumatic brain injury, testimony from other players, as well as research conducted by experts on the brain, indicate that it is not a matter to be taken lightly.
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“The Consequences...Are Incredibly Dramatic”
The symptoms that Ashton, Gorman, and Lajeunesse suffered were severe. They all endured the most standard aspect of a concussion: frequent and raging headaches. But other, lesser-known symptoms caused them equal amounts of trouble.
For months, Ashton felt a strong sense of fatigue. Gorman developed a lazy eye and an extreme sensitivity to light. Lajeunesse continually had ocular migraines — which he described as lightning bolts shooting across his field of vision — and woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling of needles pricking into his face. In addition to significantly reducing their levels of exercise, all three suffered various degrees of their symptoms for close to a full year after their injuries.
Such severe consequences are uncommon, but a grim reality of life in football, according to Dr. Ramon Diaz-Arrastia, a neurologist and the associate director of the Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair, who Lajeunesse says helped him during an appointment that accelerated his recovery.
Ashton, Gorman, and Lajeunesse suffered from Post-Concussion Syndrome, which affects roughly 10 percent of those who suffer concussions and means those affected endure symptoms for long after the typical two- to three-week period of expected recovery.
Some even experience certain symptoms for a lifetime, Dr. Diaz-Arrastia said. Especially for those who require hospitalization for concussions, he put the likelihood of suffering a “persistent lifelong disability” at 50 percent.
But what worried Diaz-Arrastia the most were the risks associated with playing through a concussion. Not only are the symptoms of that concussion exacerbated as a result, but he said the possibility of suffering a second concussion is heightened — with potentially devastating consequences.
“The biggest danger is if a player suffers even a minor brain injury — and frequently they are unaware of it, because one of the features of brain injuries is that you have amnesia — is if they were to have a second minor brain injury soon after the first one,” Diaz-Arrastia said. “The consequences of that second one are incredibly dramatic. They can go into a coma … and in some places, it’s lethal.”
The mortality rate of what Diaz-Arrastia called Second Impact Syndrome is 90 percent, he said in an interview with ABC. The same research indicated the Syndrome exclusively affects people of a high school or college age.
Documented occurrences of Second Impact Syndrome are rare, but playing through a concussion increases the risk of it drastically.
Penn Athletics educates its student-athletes on concussions and the need to seek treatment for them. The University — and the Ivy League — have made efforts to prevent players from incurring them by making the game relatively safer.
The sprint football team has a pair of full-time athletic trainers to diagnose and treat concussions on the sideline at practice and in games. Every player interviewed for this story gave glowing praise of the trainers for their high standards and diligence.
At fourth request for comment from the sprint team’s athletic trainers, Penn Athletics stated that it is standard policy to allow only Penn Athletics’ head athletic trainer to speak publicly for any story. Penn Athletics’ head trainer, Emily Dorman, declined to comment.
The players interviewed also noted that the trainers can’t spot every single concussion, and they sometimes need players to come to them as a result.
“Some of this stuff can fall on the players, where they have to take some responsibility,” 2018 College graduate and former captain Quinn Karam said. “All the trainers can do is test you, and if you’re even a little bit off, they’re pulling you out, but if you can, if you could fake your way through that test, it’s hard for them to tell you you’re concussed when you’re saying you’re not.”
The phenomenon of players faking their way through concussion testing was mentioned by multiple athletes — both sprint football veterans and athletes on other Penn Athletics programs — though Leone, a current member of the sprint team, said he was not aware of any specific instances.
The widespread acceptance of the phenomenon's feasibility points to the notion that regardless of the initiatives pushed forward by coaches, trainers, the school, or the league, there is still one vital group of stakeholders needed to buy in and make the game safer: the players themselves.
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“It...Needs To Come From The Players”
In a series of interviews, student-athletes on the roster have expressed varying levels of resistance to a number of issues pertaining to concussions and the sprint football team this season.
It began in August, when both the sprint football and football teams decided to implement a new safety feature to the outside of players’ helmets called Defend Your Head in the hopes of reducing the rate of concussions during practice. The padded helmet shells, which add roughly one pound of weight to the helmets, reportedly became the subject of considerable consternation among certain members of the sprint team.
“Do you know what the resistance was? They didn’t look good,” sprint football coach Bill Wagner said. “That was the resistance.”
“I think any time there’s a change, people are gonna be resistant at first,” Leone said. “But at this point in the season, no one even comments on it. They’ll make jokes about it, but I think the initial resistance to it was just a resistance to change that has dissipated since the beginning.”
Recent research has increased awareness nationally of the risks and consequences of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE — a long-term disease incurred by repeated sub-concussive blows to the head over a player’s career. The issue hit right at home in 2010 when the captain of Penn football, Owen Thomas, died by suicide and was later found to have had CTE.
Multiple former sprint football players acknowledged they could realistically be diagnosed with CTE one day. In all sectors of the football world, stakeholders have begun to take the issue seriously.
But according to student-athletes on several teams, including sprint football, members of the sprint team continue to joke about having CTE and do not take the issue seriously enough.
Leone, the backup running back on the team, agreed that teammates joke about CTE but disputed the notion that they don’t take it seriously.
“When people do joke about it, it’s definitely comical in nature,” Leone said. “But it’s not frequent.”
Sam Philippi, a current captain of Penn football, said by taking brain injuries more seriously, student-athletes can learn to take the game a little less seriously in the grand scheme of life.
“Players must be responsible and follow guidelines and rules now when it comes to head injuries, because we have seen in the media and news how impactful some of these injuries can be in the future lives of players,” Philippi said.
“[We] just have to be smart and realize football does end at some point in your life,” he added. “Football teaches us a lot about life as players; we can't allow it to inhibit our future lives when one of the purposes of the game is to turn us into successful future leaders in whatever industries and occupations we choose to pursue.”
In the middle of their season, though, what the members of Penn sprint football team are thinking about is how to reclaim the glory of their Collegiate Sprint Football League championship two years ago.
Just one current member of the team opted to speak on the record for this story. Others chose not to out of fear of retribution from the team or out of a desire to stay out of the story altogether.
Members of the team reportedly expressed anger at the release of Part I of this series, a profile of three former players who suffered career-ending head injuries and struggled with the effects.
“I think many of the players were upset with the piece because it portrayed the team we love and the game we’ve grown up with in a less-than-positive light,” Leone explained. “It’s like saying your family or your culture could be ‘better.’”
Others, however, asserted that the players’ attitudes toward brain injuries needs to change.
“The coaches, the league, and everyone is pretty emphatic about how serious this is,” Lajeunesse said. “We’re Penn students — we’re not making any money from playing football. It’s definitely something that needs to come from the players.”
Lajeunesse asserted that it would be a topic he would be vocal about after rejoining the team as a manager this season. In addition to multiple of his former teammates, he expressed optimism at the players’ chances of achieving such change.
But others remained skeptical that substantive and attitudinal change could take place, citing not only the culture of the players on the team, but also the nature of the sport itself.
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“This Game Is For Savages”
Tackle football is necessarily a violent sport — with an injury rate of 100 percent, as one player noted.
For sprint football at Penn, head injuries are a part of the game, as Karam, the team’s former captain, noted — especially because of how the game’s maximum weight requirement of 178 pounds changes the way people tackle. For Karam, it meant more bull-rushing, which inevitably forced his head to take more contact from opponents.
But Karam and many others, including Wagner, said worrying about their heads while they’re out on the field is something they just can’t afford to do.
“I think if they were in a meeting like this and they were talking or they were listening to somebody, they’d take it very seriously,” Wagner said. “But once the game goes on, I don’t think they’re thinking about breaking their neck or having a concussion; they’re worried about playing, and they let their instincts kick in.”
Even when they’re off the field, the players still often acknowledge that the benefits of playing football outweigh the costs of worrying about head injuries.
Simply put in their words, football means too much.
“Football does a lot of good for a lot of people,” Karam said. “I’ve had my own issues with depression, all of which occurred after having received multiple concussions. … I’m well aware that there’s a good chance someday I’ll be diagnosed with CTE, and it terrifies me. But no matter what happens, the one thing I know for certain is that if I had a chance to go back and do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Karam and several of his former teammates indicated that the number of head injuries in the sport is unfortunate, but not worth changing the sport itself for. Each player said he knew the risks of playing the game, and it was on them whether they decided to keep playing or retire if the risks became reality.
Additionally, the players all said that a hard-nosed mentality will always be necessary to play the game well, whether it results in more injuries or not.
“I don't think the culture of football is changing much,” Philippi said, “because football players are football players, and if it was easy, every person would play the sport.”
Philippi also emphasized how players must then be flexible whenever an injury does arise, knowing whether it is appropriate to play through it or not.
Gorman and several of his former teammates seemed to reject this notion, to an extent. Gorman compared his role on the team to that of a warrior in the military, knowing he may have to “pay the ultimate price.” Wagner also at one point referred to his players as “warriors.”
It’s a game for warriors — or, as Gorman asserted, savages.
“The culture of playing through injuries won’t and shouldn’t change,” Gorman said. “This game is for savages, for lack of a better term. The purpose is to attack and create high speed collisions. To push yourself to a point of reckless abandonment. For that you need a culture that rewards toughness and grit. You need people with a mindset of being unbreakable."
“The culture is the game. Is it harmful? Yes. But that’s the price you pay for the euphoria that it brings.”