Captain’s concussion highlights need for more trainers

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Volleyball injuries are often limited to nagging ankle tweaks, knee sprains and dislocated shoulders. It’s not considered a contact sport – players rarely even touch one another when the ball is in play. To see a concussion occur during the course of the game is a “freak accident,” Head Coach Diane Short said.

In her 14 years of coaching at Brown, Short said she had witnessed only one concussion, when the player involved hit her head on the floor and was taken out of the game. Concussions do happen, she said, but they are not common.

On Nov. 1, Short saw a second concussion, during a game against Harvard, when Natalie Meyers ’09, captain and setter of this year’s volleyball squad, was elbowed in the head and suffered a concussion.

As Meyers and her teammate scrambled for the ball, the two, according to Meyers, weren’t “sure where the ball was, and (my teammate) ended up elbowing me in the head.”

The “ball (was) low and fast to the net,” Short said, and Meyers is “a go-getter. (She) tries to get the ball every time.” The problem was that her teammate was also there to help, and because players are not allowed to touch the net, her teammate whipped her hands back quickly, striking Meyers’ forehead with her elbow. Though the Bears won the point, Short called a timeout immediately after the play to check on Meyers.

The team had not brought a trainer for the game, nor had they done so for two consecutive weekends, which included matches at Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and Cornell. The Harvard trainer who came to examine Meyers recommended that she sit out the rest of the game, but was reluctant to insist upon the removal of a key player of the opposing team. He left it to the discretion of Short and Meyers.

Meyers opted to play on. Her coach asked how she was doing at each timeout, and Meyers repeatedly insisted she was fine, despite having a “goose egg” on her forehead, being “very dizzy” and having foggy vision, she said.

“I don’t remember the rest of the game at all, even though I played,” Meyers said.

Short said she realizes that she should have used more caution, in spite of Meyers’ willingness to stay in the game.

“I should know – it’s typical that players want to keep playing, even when injured.”

Though Meyers was unworried at the time, she said she only found out after the match that “it could’ve been fatal if I had been hit in the same spot. I could have lost permanent brain function.”

A need for trainers?

The incident highlights the lack of trainers during the transition period between the fall and winter seasons – a gap which also occurs between the winter and spring seasons. Even prior to the injury, Meyers had met with the athletic department to discuss the issue, one which had gotten the team “really fired up,” she said. “A trainer should be a basic need that any Division I athlete is provided.”

For the past three years, the volleyball team has always had a trainer during its away games. But just two days before the trip to Columbia and Cornell, Meyers said, the team members learned that a Brown trainer wouldn’t be accompanying them. The sudden change lacked adequate justification, she said. The mid-season changes were strange, Meyers said, especially given that “no one even talked to us about it.”

“We just have a limited number of trainers,” Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.”

For six weeks in October and November, “there are sometimes more events to provide medical care for than we have staff available,” Head Trainer Russell Fiore wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “The majority of colleges in this country have the same problem,” he added.

Even so, Goldberger says, “We actually have what is close to the standard number of trainers within the Ivy League.”

According to Fiore, Brown has eight trainers, which is the same number that Yale, Penn and Columbia have. Dartmouth and Princeton each have nine, he said, while Harvard has “nine or ten” and Cornell has 13. But Brown’s trainers have more responsibilities than some at other schools, Fiore said, because Brown has more sports in which players are prone to serious injures – Yale does not have a wrestling team, and Penn and Columbia do not have ice hockey teams.

“The (head) trainer has to make tough decisions in terms of what we cover and what we don’t cover,” Goldberger said. The decision is “based on which sports have the least likelihood of injury,” he added.

According to Goldberger, the annual reports by the NCAA say that softball and volleyball have the lowest likelihoods of both general and severe injury.

“We would like there to never be a situation where there’s not a trainer,” Goldberger said. “Our trainers know our athletes better than, you know, the Harvard trainer would know our athletes.”

Despite the lack of a traveling trainer, Goldberger said, there is a mutual agreement between schools to tend to other schools’ athletes.

“It’s all pre-arranged,” he said. “We would notify, say, Harvard, ahead of time and say, ‘We are not able to send a trainer – could you cover?'”

Though he could not comment specifically on the Nov. 1 volleyball game, Goldberger said “the ultimate responsibility” to make the correct decision rested with the trainer present – regardless of what team he worked for. “The responsibility of the trainer (is) to give a professional assessment of the circumstances, and to make a decision based on that.”

Neither Goldberger nor Fiore commented on the liabilities Brown might face if a serious injury were to befall an athlete.

Not being able to send trainers to all away matches is “a tough situation,” Goldberger said. The athletic department is “trying to make sure that communication is better, and that people know what’s going on,” he added.

At the top of the department’s priority list to be presented to the University Resources Committee, which recommends Brown’s annual budget, is to get one or two more athletic trainers, Goldberger said. Fiore agreed, saying that increasing the number of trainers would “give us the ability to better care for our athletic teams.”

For its final weekend of away games, the volleyball team will again not be accompanied by a trainer. But Meyers said she feels that there have been improved efforts to keep the team out of the dark. “I do think they are being fair about it,” she said.

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