The red “N” is a worldwide brand, but the athletes’ heads inside those iconic football helmets are now in better hands at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln these days than at any other school.
Roughly 300,000 sports-related concussions and 1.7 million sports-related head injuries are reported each year in the U.S. These injuries have spurred huge lawsuits and a renewed emphasis on player safety.
University leaders, with help from a former football coach, have taken trendsetting steps to prevent these injuries, diagnose them more quickly and better help athletes recover. They recruited a top brain and brain-injury researcher to Nebraska and demolished the walls between UNL academics and NU athletics. They’ve worked together to build a world-class laboratory in the newly expanded East Stadium, a short walk from Tom Osborne Field.
The work they are pursuing could lead to quicker and more accurate on-field diagnoses of head injuries that require immediate attention. It could lead to improvements in protective technology, from better helmets to new mouthpieces. It could lead to earlier interventions that save players from later-life symptoms of memory loss and personality change. It could make youth football safer for the next generation of players. And it could have ancillary effects of finding better treatments for people who suffer head injuries in car crashes, falls and other accidents.
Interests as varied as the NCAA, al-Jazeera and ESPN have come calling about the Lincoln center’s work with a complex MRI machine and volunteer test subjects who play college sports. Officials with the National Institutes of Health are paying attention to the work and findings of UNL’s new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and its director, Dennis Molfese. It helps that the director heads a major Big Ten Conference-Ivy League collaboration on sports-related brain injuries.
But the biggest secret of this research — the special sauce, if you will — has little to do with lab space and machines and everything to do with the unprecedented cooperation Molfese and his team receive from NU athletics director Shawn Eichorst.
The athletics department under Eichorst and Osborne thought so much of this work that NU paired its athletic fundraising might alongside academics to help raise the needed funds for the academic part of the $63.5 million East Stadium renovations. NU even won the NCAA’s OK to pay athletes who participate in the lab’s research $25 each, and about one-fourth of the Husker football team takes part.
NU connected Molfese’s lab with a new Nebraska Athletics Performance Lab that focuses on maximizing athletic performance and minimizing injuries. While the two labs offer recruiting advantages for football and other sports, the academic-athletics partnership is significant. Because of that partnership, areas of research that other universities might steer away from are already up for discussion, including a study of former NU athletes for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a serious condition that threatens cognition and lives.
No other university has such a research-grade MRI machine so close to game-day action. One researcher with the National Academy of Sciences told Molfese that Nebraska could set the standard for the world in sports brain-injury research.
No place like Nebraska, indeed.
“I don’t know that there’s anything that compares with it in the country,” Molfese told The World-Herald. “We just have such easy access, first with Tom and now with Shawn. All the athletes are in the building. I can move from my MRI suite to Shawn’s office in five minutes without going outside.”
Another impressive part of the endeavor is that, behind the scenes, university leaders such as Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Prem Paul, Chancellor Harvey Perlman, his deans and then-A.D. Osborne found an opportunity to carve out a national research niche for Nebraskans.
They pulled together private donors who back the university’s academic mission and chatted up athletic boosters. They put together a plan that invested university funds with the sort of timing that guarantees maximum benefit for minimum cost. And they did so in a way that bodes well for UNL’s ability to stand out in research, even among its Big Ten peers.
This is an important development for the future of UNL as an economic and reputation driver, with Innovation Campus coming online and the university’s already impressive research in water for food, turf management and materials research.
This year, 15 UNL undergraduate students and another six graduate students will get to take part in cutting-edge brain research. They will gain experience that makes them attractive to future employers. And Nebraska will be positioned to show off its academic prowess again, thanks in part to football.