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UMW now offers its club and intramural athletes the same level of care for concussions as its varsity team players. / File photo

Matt McAloon’s club rugby players at the University of Mary Washington sustain concussions every couple of weeks.

“I’m lucky, I’ve never had one,” said McAloon, club president. “But in rugby it happens a lot.”

A year ago, McAloon would have simply taken a concussed player to the emergency room and let him back on the field when he felt better.

But UMW has taken steps recently to expand the concussion protocol used in its varsity athletics program to club and intramural sports.

Mark Mermelstein, director of campus recreation, and his staff have worked for three years to bring the same level of care—called EagleCare—to all three tiers of sports at UMW.

Now, a club sport president like McAloon notifies recreation professionals at the school right away, fills out injury reports, has the player take a memory diagnostic test, called an imPACT test, and refers them to a neurologist at Mary Washington Hospital.

And before a student can return to play, he or she has to receive clearance from that specialist.

“As players, we’re definitely safer,” McAloon said. “It helps us be more open with the school about the injuries that are happening.”

The changes come at a time when increased scrutiny has been placed on how athletics programs deal with brain trauma.

When a person’s skull is jostled or hit hard, the result can be bruising or swelling of the brain shown in these scans. While many are mild, untreated concussions can be deadly.

Increased media attention to head injuries in the National Football League and recent class action lawsuits against the National Collegiate Athletic Association accusing them of failing to protect athletes from concussions have brought the issue onto a public stage.

That protocol has been standard in varsity athletics at UMW for years, since the NCAA requires it.

Ian Rogol, UMW’s certified athletic trainer, said having this policy in place better helps the school determine how to treat a student with a concussion.

“Every year there’s new research coming out, and right now the big issue with concussions is cognitive rest,” he said. “Academically, how do we treat these students differently?”

UMW’s varsity athletics program—which includes 500 athletes in 23 sports—reported 22 concussions last year, Rogol said. Average time missed from play was eight days.

He said in those sports, it’s easier to spot a traumatic brain injury.

“We see these kids on a daily basis and get to know them,” he said. “We can pick up on drastic changes in behavior.”

That’s not always true for club and intramural sports, which are student-run.

Club sports have student presidents and function like teams, with regular practice and matches against other schools.

Intramural sports are events sponsored by the school—such as the flag football, inner-tube water polo and dodge ball games held at UMW. Students form teams for a specific event and compete on a game-by-game basis rather than for a season.

Club sports at UMW represent 26 teams and about 700 students. The university holds up to 16 intramural events per year.

During the 2012–13 school year, students in club sports sustained eight concussions, said Mermelstein.

The year before, 10 concussions were reported. And during the 2010–11 school year, eight were reported.

“To be honest, one of the reasons we started it is because there’s nothing out there like this,” Mermelstein said. “We knew we had a problem. There were a number of concussions every year without any follow-up.”

Club sports experienced more concussion oversight beginning three years ago, when the plan was first being developed. Intramural sports are new to EagleCare this year.

Another club sport president, Carter Moore, said the culture surrounding club sports at UMW nurtures successful teams.

“Our women’s rugby team has had a lot of success while I have been a part of it,” she said. “I think that part of it is due to the involvement and support of the school particularly on areas such as the standard of care we receive.”

Anna Rollins, president of club women’s lacrosse at UMW, said at first she was wary of the protocol because it sounded like a lot of extra, unnecessary work.

However, Rollins said she came around to the plan after the initial training and thinks more schools should have similar programs.

When first researching the program, Mermelstein reached out to other institutions but couldn’t find one that had steps in place to deal with concussions at the club and intramural level.

“So we decided to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves,” he said.

Since Eagle Care began, Mermelstein has been contacted by 21 universities looking to use the UMW model in their athletics programs.

Among those inquires are universities with thriving athletics programs such as the University of Connecticut, Louisiana State University and the University of Notre Dame. Old Dominion University, George Mason University, Longwood University, Hampden–Sydney College, James Madison University, Emory & Henry College and Eastern Mennonite University are among the Virginia schools that have contacted him about creating similar programs, as well.

The NCAA estimates that 1.6 million to 3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreation-related activities every year in the U.S.

A traumatic brain injury, a concussion alters brain functions and can present itself differently in different patients.

Effects are usually temporary, according to the Mayo Clinic, but can include problems with headache, concentration, memory, judgment, balance and coordination.

Although concussions usually are caused by a blow to the head, they can also occur when the head and upper body are violently shaken. That can happen at any level of athletics, not just varsity, said Mermelstein.

“It [EagleCare] was essential, so the same level of care is available to everyone,” Mermelstein said.

Dianne McKee, neurodiagnostics manager at Mary Washington Healthcare, helped the campus recreation staff expand the concussion protocol.

“There are new laws protecting students from elementary school through high school,” she said. “As a parent, when you send your child to college, you hope something similar is in place to protect them.”

McKee said she was surprised by the lack of resources for club and intramural sports participants on the collegiate level.

“You have to have a standardized process in place,” she said.

She said every school should have concussion protection for these sports to protect their own students and those who are visiting for games.

McKee advised students to be their first line of defense—immediately take themselves out of the game after head trauma and seek an athletic trainer or healthcare provider.

“Don’t put the win before health,” she said.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976