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CARE Consortium: Baseline performance of NCAA athletes

Examining differences in student-athletes in contact, limited contact and noncontact sports

The ongoing Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium study evaluates college student-athletes from three distinct groups: contact sports, limited contact sports and noncontact sports. Barry Katz, professor and chair of the Indiana department of biostatistics, along with other prominent researchers, authored a paper that sought to find if any neurocognitive differences are perceptible among those groups, potentially driven by the varying levels of exposure to head impact in their sports. His paper, published in March in Sports Medicine, an academic journal, used baseline cognitive testing among more than 15,000 NCAA student-athletes in 24 different sports to search for differences.

What did the study find?

Student-athletes with a history of participating in contact sports displayed no clinically meaningful deficits in preseason cognitive and balance testing, and they did not report significantly more symptoms of psychological distress, relative to their peers in noncontact and limited-contact sports (as reflected by common concussion baseline evaluations). In fact, student-athletes in contact sports outperformed their counterparts, albeit by slight margins, on a few of the measures.

What are the implications?

The minimal variation in these cognitive and clinical assessments between sport types indicated no evidence that a history of participation in contact sports resulted in neurocognitive or clinical assessment deficits among the study participants.

“Youth contact sport participation does not appear to have an impact on mental acuity in young adults,” Katz said. “This seems consistent with prior published results, which demonstrate the most noticeable cognitive effects are in retired professional athletes.”

What’s next?

While the study examined college student-athletes and found little difference between those participating in sports with varying degrees of contact exposure, it only drew from a two-year sample. Being able to track these athletes over a much longer term to see if cognitive or clinical changes manifest with age, further exposure to contact — or both — will be essential to determining if, how and why long-term consequences and changes develop. 

“We know we don’t see any deficits in the baseline data, so the key question remains as to what happens to these athletes, especially in contact sports, over time,” Katz said. “Continuing to follow those in contact and noncontact sports yields the best possible design for studying any long-term consequences of concussions and repeated head impacts.”