Head in the game 

UM scientists hit back at concussion issue in new doc

San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland shocked the National Football League earlier this year when he announced his retirement. Borland, who had never been diagnosed with a concussion while playing college or professional football, expressed concern for his long-term safety. He was just 24.

"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been," the projected starter told ESPN about his decision. "For me, it's wanting to be proactive."

The key word in Borland's statement is "proactive." Traumatic brain injury is the biggest bogeyman in professional football—and, to a lesser extent, other sports—but the NFL has struggled to address it. Two years ago, PBS aired "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis," a damning look at players affected by repeated hits to the head. That documentary is the basis of an upcoming feature film, Concussion, starring Will Smith, that plays up how league officials allegedly hid what they knew about their players' health risks. Who knew what, and when, also factored into a class-action lawsuit settled in April that will pay more than 5,000 ex-NFL players up to $5 million each for serious medical conditions associated with repeated head trauma. With so much negative publicity and sobering new scientific information, football executives are trying to be as proactive as possible with treating and preventing future injuries—or risk losing more players like Borland, not to mention football's place as the nation's most popular sport.

A new documentary from Montana PBS taps into this emerging crisis. "Concussion: Answers in the Blood?" follows two University of Montana scientists who were among the initial winners of research grants sponsored by GE and the NFL, and their quest to secure future funding.

click to enlarge A new PBS documentary features UM’s Tom Rau, right, and Sarj Patel, who have potentially found a way to diagnose  concussions by discovering biomarkers in the blood.
  • A new PBS documentary features UM’s Tom Rau, right, and Sarj Patel, who have potentially found a way to diagnose concussions by discovering biomarkers in the blood.

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to understanding the science, but the documentary smartly keeps its focus on people. The two main characters, Tom Rau and Sarj Patel, play like a nerdy version of Starsky and Hutch. Rau describes Patel as a highbrow bookworm originally from the UK and himself as nothing more than a "Montana hick." Together, they've potentially found a way to eliminate the imprecise nature of diagnosing concussions by discovering biomarkers in the blood that indicate how the brain reacts to hard hits.

The documentary leaves the lab to follow those who could directly benefit from the duo's work. Specifically, we see how Hellgate lineman Bridger Skillicorn and UM women's soccer player Payton Agnew deal with the realities of head trauma. We also meet team trainers tasked with identifying concussions and talking to players conditioned to play through injury. In one scene a defiant Hellgate sophomore football player yells at trainer Paul Capp to let him back into the game even though he can't repeat a basic number sequence. It's a conversation played out on sidelines across the nation every day, but it feels a little more immediate on a field practically in the shadow of where Rau and Patel work.

It's interesting to note that few people in this film—players, coaches, trainers, scientists—ever sound satisfied. People react differently to different types of contact. Current concussion protocols remain inconclusive and debatable. Solid research takes time that nobody seems to have. In the absence of definitive answers, fear and frustration prevail. It's why Borland opted to preserve his health and retire. It's why the NFL and GE are spending millions of dollars for better science. And it's why you'll find yourself rooting for the two personable scientists at the heart of this documentary.

"Concussion: Answers in the Blood?" premieres Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 8 PM on Montana PBS.

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