Brain trust

by Brian Mullen

Many female athletes won’t risk reporting concussions if they can’t count on support from their coaches and teams.


Melinda Weathers (left) discusses concussions and communication strategies with undergraduate student Samantha Warren at Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center. Photograph by Craig Mahaffey.

Concussions are common among athletes, and females receive nearly twice as many concussions as males in the sports they both play. Recent research suggests a discrepancy between male and female athletes in reported symptoms, concussion recovery times, and post-concussion outcomes on neuropsychological testing.

To bring awareness to this issue, Jimmy Sanderson and Melinda Weathers investigated female athletes’ experiences in reporting concussions.

“Research regarding sports-related concussions has been limited to studies focusing on concussion rates, patterns of injury, and risk factors among high school athletes in football and other male collision sports,” Weathers says. “Little to no attention, however, has been given to the communicative practices that may influence reporting concussions in sports.”

Sanderson adds that public perception is part of the problem. “The media tend to focus on male athletes, and there is not a lot of attention given to female athletes, who, in some sports, experience higher incidence rates of concussions,” Sanderson says. “So we wanted to look exclusively at female athletes to see what their experiences were.”

The researchers partnered with Pink Concussions, a nonprofit organization for female athletes who experience head injuries, to collect data from more than 500 female athletes who play or have played organized sports.

Most don’t report

The study’s results reveal that the majority of participants had suffered one or more concussions while playing sports and continued to play without reporting the head injury.

“Overall we found that the majority of female athletes did not report concussions,” Weathers notes. “Specifically, 445 female athletes in the study suffered a concussion and 366 of them continued to play.”

When the researchers asked why female athletes did not report concussions, several themes emerged. Female athletes perceived a lack of severity in the concussion, hesitated to buck the cultural norms of their sport, or doubted that they would find the resources, knowledge, and support they needed to address the injury.

“There was a big fear of retribution from coaches,” Sanderson says. “Also some of the players had no idea how to recognize a concussion.”

The researchers say that understanding the issues that influence concussion reporting has the potential to help female athletes after they experience head injuries.

Jimmy Sanderson and Melinda Weathers are assistant professors of communication studies in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Brian Mullen is the communications director for research.

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