UNC winter grads hear football concussion expert

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 09:47 PM

UNC photojournalism senior Julysa Sosa lined up with her friends in Carolina blue caps and gowns in the belly of the Smith Center Sunday, checking her phone and taking photos before the procession started.

Sosa was an hour away from officially becoming an alumna and a first-generation college graduate. She tried to reach her father, deployed with the Army, by video-chat on her phone before winter commencement began.

About 1,100 UNC students applied to graduate in December, and on Sunday, many of them walked across the stage, hearing their names reverberate across the arena.

Sosa said she doesn’t have a job lined up, but she’s moving straight to New York after graduation. She loves documentary photojournalism, and for an eight-month project, she followed a Fort Bragg family dealing with a deployment.

“I’m just taking a leap of faith and moving to the city,” she said. “It hasn’t hit me yet ... I’m the first to graduate, so I know it’s a big deal for my family.”

Haley McLoud, 22, also stood in line waiting for the ceremony to start. She graduated a semester early Sunday with a degree in history.

She’s originally from Denver, Colo., and she said the first time she saw UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus was during freshmen move-in, and she decided on attending UNC because of its public school reputation. She’ll stay in Chapel Hill and work, she said, before attending law school.

“I’m excited but a little nervous about the future,” McLoud said.

Kevin Guskiewicz, a world renowned concussion expert and UNC sport science and exercise professor, served as commencement speaker.

He founded the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Center and serves as research director for the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, as well as leads the NFL’s subcommittee on safety equipment and playing rules.

Guskiewicz told the soon-to-be graduates to surround themselves with people they trust. He said in 2005 and 2007, he and his colleagues published two research papers that incriminated the NFL, by finding that football players had a higher probability of  cognitive impairment and depression later in life if they were subjected to three or more concussions during their NFL career.

The NFL and its medical committee began dismissing their findings. People started saying Guskiewicz was out to “ruin the sport,” even though three of his sons played youth football.

“It was a difficult time for our research group because we knew our research was solid, and we refused to be intimidated and just walk away,” he said. “... We didn’t go to battle with the NFL. Instead, we surrounded ourselves with more good people, people we trusted, to expand our research program and eventually corroborate our findings.”

Now, their research has changed the game -- the old NFL medical committee doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, his UNC research team is leading the NFL’s research in the area. There has been a 40 percent reduction in concussions over the past three years in the NFL and NCAA. Changes and awareness have even trickled down to youth sports.

“When you know you’re right and your integrity is intact, you will persevere,” he said.