By Daniel Libit
The University of New Mexico’s medical staff has raised alarms within the athletic department after men’s basketball coach Paul Weir was overheard warning his players about how they report concussion symptoms, NMFishbowl.com has been told.
According to multiple sources, Weir was heard telling players after a practice last month that they should be careful when reporting head-trauma issues to team physicians and trainers, because the school requires a minimum 10-day, sit-out period for athletes diagnosed with concussions.
Weir, according to one knowledgable source, also told his players that he plans to “fight” the current policy. Weir’s perceived defiance on such a sensitive matter of athlete well-being has rattled an athletic department already woozy from various other controversies and investigations, insiders say.
“There is significant concern about player safety involving head injuries, in particular concussions,” said the source.
Weir, however, suggested that the issue he sought to address is not so much about player safety as player sloth.
“Any actual diagnosed concussion we would take with the upmost precautions at the time of injury,” Weir told NMFishbowl.com in an email. “We have, however, had several instances of inaccurate reporting to our athletic trainer from student-athletes trying to avoid conditioning, training, or other athletic-related activities since my arrival. My recollection of the meeting you are referring to was to remind them to think very carefully before they describe their feelings to medical personnel.”
All UNM sports coaches are required to sign a document acknowledging that they understand and will comply with the school’s concussion policies. Weir, who was hired in April, said he signed his form within the last two weeks.
In recent years, the issue of concussions has taken center stage in the world of sport, beckoning rule changes from the pee-wees to the pros and advancing legislation and litigation across the country. The NCAA is currently facing multiple personal injury suits over its member institutions’ handling of concussions suffered by Division I football players and last year reached a $75 million settlement in a class-action case.
Sources say that UNM medical staff addressed their concerns to Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez and Associate Athletic Director Janice Ruggiero, who most recently served as interim AD. But there is a brooding sense that, in light of other troubles in Loboland, a limited appetite exists to confront another potential south campus controversy — this one involving the newly hired herdsman of a very tipsy cash cow.
“I have nothing to say,” Ruggiero said when reached by phone Monday morning, before hanging up on a reporter mid-sentence. Nuñez said that he had not been made aware of the alleged incident until NMFishbowl.com brought it to his attention.
“Hopefully (Weir) did not do that and I really can’t speak to that because I have not heard that,” Nuñez said. “That is not what I want any of our coaches to be articulating to anyone.”
Nuñez said that Weir had expressed to him a hope that the athletic department would review its current concussion protocol, which the athletic director says he is now conducting as part of an overarching assessment of department policies.
“There isn’t anything out there that is wrong, and I want to make sure all of our policies are right,” Nuñez said. “This one is, but are we doing [it] the best?”
Said Weir: “Our review could yield many results and I will be committed to enforcing whatever our department decides.
Since arriving in Albuquerque, Weir has swiftly cultivated the reputation as a sports science aficionado who takes a holistic approach to his players’ minds and bodies.
A glowing profile in The Athletic last week noted Weir’s four degrees, including a master’s in Health and Human Performance from Northwestern State and a master’s in sports psychology from Iowa. In August, the Albuquerque Journal published a four-part series about “the major program changes” Weir was undertaking at the helm of the Lobos, extolling the coach as a cutting-edge intellectual. In unveiling his team’s new off-season Bikram yoga regimen, Weir spoke high-mindedly about the importance of balance when it comes to athletes’ physical development.
“What we’re going to put your bodies through is only going to work if you start treating your bodies properly from a nutrition standpoint, a sleep standpoint and a recovery standpoint,” Weir told the Journal in recalling an early message to his team.
“A lot of the stuff seems like madness at first, but there’s actually methods to it,” UNM forward Connor MacDougall opined in the story. “Some if it is just trying to look at something new — being comfortable in the uncomfortable. It’s good for us.”
MacDougall was one of three Lobos forced to miss parts of last season after being diagnosed with concussions. The Arizona State transfer was held out of four contests after injuring his head in a January game contest against Nevada. Tim Williams, the Lobos’ star big man, missed two games in December and junior wing Dane Kuiper also missed a game in January, after breaking his nose in the team’s second match-up against the Wolf Pack.
“We’ve lost 30 days (to) concussion protocol,” former UNM coach Craig Neal lamented during a Jan. 1 press conference. “We’ve got to take care of our student-athletes, but that’s a big deal losing 30 days of those guys.” (The previous season, Neal’s son, Cullen, was held out of a game after a concussion diagnosis.)
Athletic department sources say that, despite Neal’s occasional frustrations with the policy, he was always compliant.
“He never fought it,” said a former athletic department staffer. “He would be frustrated at times, but we all understood why it was there…I give Craig Neal credit for honoring it.”
In its most updated best-practice guidelines for concussion diagnosis and management, the NCAA says that athletes diagnosed with sport-related concussions should not be allowed to return to athletic activity for the remainder of the day. Beyond that, it does not specify a concrete timeline for return-to-play. The guidelines do, however, reference an oft-cited 2009 study of college football players, authored by neuropsychologist Michael McCrea, which determined that 80 percent of repeat concussions occurred within seven to 10 days of the initial injury.
Incorporating that finding, as well as other studies about post-traumatic blood flow to the brain, UNM’s Concussion Management protocol mandates that any athlete “identified as having a concussion” must be held out of athletic participation for a minimum of 10 days. Although there is no comprehensive survey of rest/recovery periods for athletic departments, a cursory review of policy manuals available online suggests that UNM’s is on the cautious end of the spectrum.
In his interview with NMFishbowl.com, Nunez said he did not yet feel comfortable rendering judgment on the appropriate role for coaches when it comes to athlete medical decisions. But the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute draws an indelible line on who should make these calls:
“An active member institution should establish an administrative structure that provides independent medical care and affirms the unchallengeable autonomous authority of primary athletics health care providers (team physicians and athletic trainers) to determine medical management and return-to-play decisions related to student-athletes.”
(Featured image by Sam Wasson / Getty)