Spring 2020

Head Games

The Right Idea

The NFL’s centennial season began with shocking news: 29-year-old quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring after just seven years in the league.

Luck had been stuck in an injury-rehab-repeat cycle for years. A concussion and a lacerated kidney were just a few of a long list of medical ailments the star quarterback battled over his short career.

Athlete health and wellness have always been a public health concern. But now, says Dr. Jeff Milroy, the conversation is louder, and even more public, than ever before.

As an assistant professor of public health education and associate director of UNCG’s Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness, Milroy is one of the leaders pushing this conversation forward. His research centers on improving health outcomes for athletes.

While stories of professional players grab our attention, Milroy is focused on a much larger group with much more potential for public health impact: youth and college athletes.

According to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 56.5% of U.S. children, ages 6 to 12, played a team sport at least one time during 2017. Nearly 8 million students participate in high school athletics, and on the collegiate level, there are more than 500,000 student-athletes nationwide.

Recently, Milroy and his colleagues received a National Institutes of Health grant to investigate how parents and coaches affect young athletes’ concussion disclosure behavior. Studies show that over 50% of sport-related concussions go unreported, resulting in delayed care and long-term health impacts.

A woman and her son attend a focus group meeting.
Dr. Jeff Milroy speaks to a group of parents and children during a focus group meeting.
Another woman and her son attend a focus group meeting.
A woman advances a PowerPoint during a focus group meeting.

Above, Milroy leads a focus group of parents and youth athletes at the Greensboro Sportsplex, in collaboration with Greensboro Parks and Recreation. His research team includes Dr. Wyrick, graduate student Pauline Privitera, Dr. Emily Kroshus at Washington State University, and Dr. Bill Hansen of Prevention Strategies, LLC. See more photos on UNCG Research Flickr

The new study builds off a 2016 study, funded by the NCAA and U.S. Department of Defense, in which Milroy and Dr. David Wyrick explored the impact of athlete-coach relationships on concussion disclosure in college athletics. 

They found that communication from coaches matters. When athletes receive concussion-related messages from their coaches that specifically support disclosing symptoms, says Milroy, athletes are more likely to report problems.

But Milroy’s mission is much broader than concussions. His work is about creating a sport culture in which athlete mental and physical health is prioritized by coaches, parents, school administrators, and athletes themselves.

The Institute to Promote Athlete Health and Wellness, led by Milroy and Wyrick, is recognized as a national leader in this space and currently serves as the educational partner of the NCAA Sport Science Institute. The two institutes work closely together on a variety of issues – including mental health, sexual violence, and alcohol and drug misuse – that impact college athletes.

“When it comes to the student-athlete population, we have more data than any other group out there, besides the NCAA,” says Milroy.

The UNCG institute, which has received over $1.8 million in funding since it launched in 2013, also works with the NFL Foundation and other organizations that advocate for the health and wellness of student-athletes.

While the work often involves specific interventions for specific populations, the end goal is much bigger.

“When I have conversations with schools that are ahead of the curve, they’re talking about creating cultures to spur the holistic success of their athletes,” Milroy says.

While sport often gets a “bad rap,” he says, positive sport cultures have the power to do a lot of good. “It’s not just about wins and losses. It’s about developing and fostering a culture that views human development as paramount and encourages athletes to become their best selves, on and off the field.”

Milroy and his colleagues work with Prevention Strategies – a company spun out of UNCG in 2006 and helmed by Wyrick – to translate their findings into practical tools. The LLC’s offerings include several web-based programs that educate student-athletes and coaches on alcohol and drug abuse, concussions, risky sexual behaviors, and the transition to life after college sports.

Article by Alyssa Bedrosian
Photography by Martin W. Kane and Jiyoung Park

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