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Feb 9, 2019

Lasting impact

Co-produced with PRX Logo

All 50 states and Washington, D.C., have laws to protect high school athletes from concussions. Are they keeping kids safe? We tell the story of a star quarterback in Oregon whose school followed protocol, but concussions caught up with him in a way no one saw coming. Plus, a visit to a community that believes the benefits of football are worth the risk of concussions.

EXPLORE

How does your state stack up on concussion laws?


READ

Rattled: Oregon’s Concussion Discussion by our partners InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media group

Resources

  • We built a customizable form that makes it easy to ask your school district key questions. Join our network and get it here.
  • BrainLine.org offers facts, information, resources and support for preventing, treating and living with traumatic brain injuries, including children and sports concussions.
  • A powerful GQ story about a high school football player who committed suicide.
  • Frontline documentary “League of Denial” investigates what the NFL knew about concussions and when.
  • The National Federation of State High School Associations tracks sports participation and sets rules, including rules that aim to reduce concussions.
  • Laws in all 50 states generally require that students with suspected concussions be pulled from play. Several national laws were introduced last year in Congress, including this, which would require schools to provide physical and academic support for recovery, as well as publish concussion information, and this, focused on data collection.

Credits

 

Today's show was produced in collaboration with InvestigateWest and Oregon’s Pamplin Media Group.

Produced by Emily Harris, edited by Taki Telonidis of Reveal.

Reported by Sergio Olmos, edited by Lee van der Voo of InvestigateWest and John Schrag of Pamplin Media Group.

Data analysis and research by Jacob Fenton, Sinduja Rangarajan, Casey Miner; data editing by Michael Corey.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From The Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is "Reveal." I'm Al Letson.

 

Speaker 2: These are two of the most physical teams. They're in the Super Bowl for a reason, and you're getting a physical football game.

 

Al Letson: More than a hundred million people tuned into the Super Bowl last week but, not far below the buzz and the hype, questions about concussions persist.

 

Al Letson: The NFL has changed rules to try and reduce head injuries and it settled a lawsuit with players who claim permanent brain damage from concussions. That's likely to cost the league over a billion dollars.

 

Al Letson: But most football isn't played on Sundays by professionals, it's played on Friday nights by high school athletes across the country, where the danger of repeated hits to the head is just as real. 10 years before the NFL lawsuit was even filed, an ambulance in a small Oregon town raced to get to a hospital 150 miles away. Inside is a high school football player named Max Conrad. He's unconscious after taking a hit in a Friday night game. Following behind the ambulance is his dad, Ralph. The whole way, he remembers pleading with God.

 

Ralph Conrad: I told God I will never watch another boxing match, I will never watch another high school football game. If there's any way, take me, not Max. I mean I was bargaining, just bargaining.

 

Al Letson: Max played quarterback for the Waldport Fighting Irish. That night, he'd been tackled hard in the first half. The hit made him confused and punch drunk. After the play, he wandered into the wrong huddle. A teammate pulled him into the right one.

 

Al Letson: Max hadn't slept the night before because a headache from a concussion in the last game kept him up. Then, at half time, as he was walking off the field, Max collapsed.

 

Ralph Conrad: Max died. Oh God, I shouldn't say that. The Max we knew left us at 8:00 P.M., October 19, 2001. There's a different Max now.

 

Al Letson: Max woke up after months in a coma, but his brain never fully recovered. Doctors determined that Max suffered what's called Second Impact Syndrome, when a person's brain hasn't recovered from one concussion and they're hit again. The second hit puts enormous pressure on the brain.

 

Al Letson: When Max's dad Ralph learned what happened to his son, he was determined to do something. The first was to raise awareness by convincing the media to do stories about Max. Then, he teamed up with brain injury advocates to work on legislation. In 2009, Oregon, along with Washington, became the first states in the country to pass concussion laws. Oregon's was called Max's Law and it was designed to protect high school athletes.

 

Ralph Conrad: As soon as he or she appears to have been concussed, he is required to come off the field and you don't go back in, period. You have to be checked out by a doctor.

 

Al Letson: It's now been almost 10 years since Max's Law was passed and every state has a youth concussion law on the books. Most say players suspected on having a concussion can't play or practice until they give their school clearance from a medical professional. We wanted to know if these laws are really preventing injuries like Max's, and to see if all the records schools have on concussions can teach us anything new about protecting kids.

 

Al Letson: Lee van der Voo led a year long investigation for our partners Investigate West and Oregon's Pamplin Media Group.

 

Lee van der Voo: We recognize that potentially we were sitting on a gold mine of data that nobody was really looking at.

 

Al Letson: So, what did you do exactly?

 

Lee van der Voo: Well, we asked for two years of these records from all the public high schools in Oregon. That's 235 schools. We looked at which sports had a lot of concussions, at which schools, whether they had happened in big districts, or small ones. We also just wanted to see who was following the law.

 

Al Letson: Don't states enforce it?

 

Lee van der Voo: Actually, no. There's no enforcement mechanism. At minimum, we thought this could be a really good audit. Do people do this if nobody checks?

 

Al Letson: Lee's colleague in the project is Sergio Olmos. He wanted to follow a football player who played the game after Max's Law was passed.

 

Sergio Olmos: That's right, Al. I wanted to see if there were any consequences of the law that weren't easy to see in the data so I looked for someone like Max, someone who played football in high school, got hit in the head more than once. That's when I found Jonathan Boland.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan grew up in a working class neighborhood called Parkrose. It's on the outer edges of Portland, near the airport. Not a part of town the tourists spend a lot of time in. There's a little more poverty here than the rest of the county, and a lot more diversity. Most kids at Jonathan's high school are students of color. Jonathan's family home is a small, square 1950s house with a tall evergreen tree out front and a big backyard. I'm in the living room, looking at family photos with his parents.

 

Jim Boland: Jimmy is our oldest. Jeremiah, Jonathan, and Jules.

 

Sergio Olmos: That's Jonathan's father, Jim Boland. He likes to joke around.

 

Jim Boland: Yeah. You want to hear something funny, too — Jimmy was born in July, Jeremiah was born in June, and Jonathan was born in January. Girl comes along, messes it all up. March.

 

Renee Boland: That's not funny.

 

Jim Boland: Yeah, it is funny. I planned it that way.

 

Sergio Olmos: Renee, Jonathan's mother, thinks Jim jokes around too much. They're different in other ways, too. Jim is tall and white, Renee is short and African-American. He drives trucks for a living, she's an educational assistant.

 

Sergio Olmos: In fifth grade, Jonathan turns to his mother when he wants to do something Dad won't allow.

 

Renee Boland: I found a team and took him there. It was a rec team, flag football. He practiced with them that evening. We got in the car on our way home and I said, "Do you like it?" He goes, "Yeah, I do, but Dad's not gonna let me play." I go, "Well, I'll just take you without Dad knowing."

 

Sergio Olmos: Jim didn't want his kids getting hurt playing football, so Jonathan and his mother kept it their little secret.

 

Renee Boland: Until finally he had a game and I encouraged Dad to come watch him. When he came out to watch him, he saw how good he was.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan was good at football from an early age but his neighborhood high school, Parkrose, was not very good. In Jonathan's lifetime, they made the playoffs once — the year before he started high school — so they were on the rise. Jonathan came along at just the right time.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan wore a medium jersey and a thin mustache. He was short for football. He was still growing but he was talented enough to play varsity his freshman year. The next year, he took over as quarterback.

 

Jonathan B.: Sophomore year was when I started to take playing quarterback seriously, they'll say that. Going to camps, getting my own personal quarterback coach, hitting the weights heavy, and quarterback drills every day.

 

Sergio Olmos: When Jonathan was in games as quarterback sophomore year, Parkrose's average score per game doubled compared to the games he had to sit out and the team kept getting better.

 

Speaker 9: Jonathan Boland has led really a resurgence of the Bronco football team and, as Dan Christopherson reports, he doesn't plan to stop until they've reached the playoffs.

 

Jonathan B.: I love playing quarterback.

 

Speaker 10: You see that in the way Jonathan Boland plays the game, with passion and style.

 

Sergio Olmos: Renee remembers one amazing play Jonathan pulled off.

 

Renee Boland: The first play, they hiked the ball to Jon. He went straight down the middle and scored a touchdown. Didn't even look at anybody. He just got the ball and took off running.

 

Jim Boland: 97 yards.

 

Renee Boland: That's scary, but he could do it. He did it.

 

Sergio Olmos: Let me ask you about running the ball as a quarterback. Did you get hit a lot?

 

Jonathan B.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Every play. Every single time I ... If I'm not scoring or if I'm not running out of bounds, yeah, I was getting hit. Yeah.

 

Sergio Olmos: Do you remember the first concussion?

 

Jonathan B.: It was back sophomore year. Yeah.

 

Sergio Olmos: Concussion number one. Jonathan is tackled near the sideline. To him, concussions feel like this.

 

Jonathan B.: Just the slowiness, the fog. People say you see stars. I ain't never seen stars, but the stomachache, you usually throw up after a concussion. My stomach hurt.

 

Sergio Olmos: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists those as classic concussion symptoms. So what exactly happens to the brain? Here's how a CDC expert explains it for parents and players on their website.

 

Speaker 11: A concussion is a change in how the brain functions. It's not a structural injury, it's a functional injury. When the body or the head is struck, the brain will slosh around inside the head and it changes how the brain works.

 

Sergio Olmos: Concussions can affect people's memory and make it hard to think clearly. The CDC says they can trigger mood, behavior, or personality changes.

 

Speaker 12: Concussions in youth sports is important because you're talking about potential threat to the development of that youngster's brain.

 

Sergio Olmos: When Jonathan gets his first concussion sophomore year, it's three years into Max's Law. He was pulled out of the game, as the law requires. He went to a county medical clinic at Parkrose High School 10 days after getting hit. Notes show he was a given a cognitive test and he had symptoms of a concussion, but the test itself is not in the files, and there's no record of a follow-up test. Three and a half weeks later, Jonathan turns in a doctor's note clearing him to play.

 

Sergio Olmos: It looks like the law was generally followed here, but the paper trail is incomplete. In our review across the state, my colleague Lee found that a lot of schools keep sloppy records.

 

Lee van der Voo: When we got a hold of the request, the condition of the records was, in some cases, just really rough, like handwritten notes and really inconsistent record keeping. of course, good records, it's not required but it's certainly best practice. At the end, it was really hard to be confident in how well the laws were being followed. Honestly, that's just sort of a shame. I mean, we have this potentially great opportunity to learn more about concussions in student athletes in our state and we're not really learning anything from it.

 

Sergio Olmos: We looked at Jonathan's school, Parkrose, specifically.

 

Lee van der Voo: These days, Parkrose is among the best organized we found, but that's under a new principal. From Jonathan's time, the school says it simply has no records other than what was at county clinic. They don't know what happened in the school's athletic department records on concussions for all the years Jonathan was there.

 

Sergio Olmos: So, after that first concussion, Jonathan's mom, Renee, started to see changes in her son. He had trouble focusing on his homework. At school, he would go to the nurse's office when he needed a break.

 

Renee Boland: He was allowed to lay down, rest, as much as he needed to, because of the concussion.

 

Sergio Olmos: That was an informal arrangement. Unlike some states, Oregon doesn't require schools to have an academic plan to help athletes who've had a concussion return to class gradually.

 

Sergio Olmos: It's junior year and Jonathan is back on the field. His team has a realistic shot in making the state playoffs. It's Friday night in late October, the play is a quarterback draw. Jonathan runs up the middle. Two linebackers make the tackle on him and come down on his head. Renee is in the stands and sees him go down.

 

Renee Boland: He didn't get up. When I got there, his helmet was off and he'd just kind of laying there. Danny, the paramedics who were talking to him, he tried to open up his eyes and he couldn't. He said the light was too much. The last thing he kept saying was, "I ran, Coach Mo. You told me to run, I ran." He was apologizing. Now that he's injured, he's apologizing.

 

Sergio Olmos: Concussion number two. This time, Jonathan went straight to the hospital. He stayed overnight. Jonathan watched his team from the sideline the rest of his junior year. Hospital records show a doctor wouldn't let him play or even work out for four months. When that time was up, Jonathan went straight back into the gym, training with the former Parkrose assistant coach, TP Brown, who had become a mentor and friend. Coach Brown says that it was slow going.

 

TP Brown: I mean, with the headaches, you really can't do too much. You know, with the running, the pounding. So it was, you run a little bit and you walk. You might lift a little bit and then we're doing mobility work. It wasn't as rigorous as like I said, a normal training regimen was.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan pushed through headaches to rebuild his strength. He wanted to be 100% for his senior year, and not just for the sake of playing football. He wanted to be the first kid in his family to graduate from college, and he hoped that football would pay his way. For Jonathan, that meant doing anything to get a scholarship, including downplaying his concussions.

 

Jonathan B.: Because I know as a college coach, being around them, they don't want a athlete that has a lot of injuries, you know? Especially concussions because you don't know how many you can get until you retire.

 

Sergio Olmos: When Jonathan returned as quarterback senior year, the Oregonian, the local newspaper, called him "as good as new." Parkrose coach Maurice France, known as Coach Mo, told the paper Jonathan was back to his old self. Jonathan's mom saw something else going on.

 

Renee Boland: Jonathan was taking four to five ibuprofen or Advil before every game. When I found that out, then I was telling Coach Mo about it. I go, "I don't think that's health. I don't think he should be doing that." He goes, "Well, if it take away, then it makes him play better." Yeah, but four to five ibuprofen, that's not following.

 

Sergio Olmos: Coach Mo told us he thinks he would have sent Jonathan to the school athletic trainer if Renee raised that concern. He doesn't remember the specific conversation.

 

Sergio Olmos: It's halfway through the season. Jonathan takes another hit. His helmet is knocked off. He sits out a bit, but then he returns to the field.

 

Jonathan B.: My boy Marchand, he was just like, "Boy, you're trippin'. Your hair is messed up, bro."

 

Sergio Olmos: His friend, Marchand, talks to the coach and Jonathan gets pulled out of the game. Parkrose's athletic trainer goes up onto the stands and tells Jonathan father Jim that his son may have a concussion. Concussion number three.

 

Sergio Olmos: But things fall apart from there. Jim forgets to tell Renee, and Jonathan doesn't tell anybody. In fact, Jonathan tells the school trainer he went to the doctor and was okay. The school double checks with Renee. She's called into a meeting, that's when she realizes Jonathan has been lying. She's furious.

 

Renee Boland: I go, there's only one thing to do. You're not playing in the playoffs. You're done. Right when I said that, the athletic director and the nurse, who works in the health center, said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let us run the test on him to see how he's going to be in two or three weeks," or whenever the playoffs was starting. I said no, because if he's not going to tell me the truth and if I'm not going to find out, he's done. So she goes, "Let us run the test, Renee." I say, "So why am I here?"

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan's third concussion brings up a weak link in Max's Law. It relies on students to tell the truth, parents and schools have to follow up, and everybody to put health above football.

 

Renee Boland: I was frustrated because this is my opinion, they wanted a quarterback, they wanted a football team, Jonathan wanted a reputation. All of it played together.

 

Sergio Olmos: The former assistant coach at Parkrose, T.P. Brown, thinks that's just the way it was back then.

 

TP Brown: I mean the concussion protocols were just coming into play, and there was not as much stigma around concussions as it is today, so a lot of that stuff wasn't being taken as seriously as it should have.

 

Sergio Olmos: But at this point, Max's Law had been in effect five full years, and coaches were supposed to get concussion management training every year. As for Jonathan, he didn't want to think about concussions. He wanted to think about his performance on the field because he knew that colleges were watching.

 

Bruce Barnum: I want this hash, this hash, this hash. Block, block, block!

 

Speaker 15: Let's go, let's go!

 

Sergio Olmos: That's Portland State University football coach Bruce Barnum, running the sideline at a game. He's a big man, built like an offensive lineman. He thought Jonathan might be worth a scholarship, so he goes to watch the Parkrose homecoming game Jonathan's senior year.

 

Bruce Barnum: That night, it was raining; just a gully washer. He was a quarterback and he was the star of the night, and it was obvious. Every time he did something, the crowd cheered. I wanted to see everything, how he interacted and ... not a one soul could I find to say anything bad about Jonathan Boland. I saw how he treat his mom that night. He had an umbrella for her, he's in his uniform sweating and he gave her flower. He was everybody's All American that night.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan's concussions didn't worry the Portland State coach.

 

Bruce Barnum: Because I'm only bringing them in. Two hours are spent with our trainer, so I don't judge any of that. They do all that. I just get a report, yes he's fine.

 

Sergio Olmos: A few weeks after homecoming, Barnum and an assistant coach knock on the door of the Boland house. They walk in and right away, Jonathan hugs the coach.

 

Jonathan B.: He like, "You're the first recruit to ever hug me," and I'm like, "That's just me, you know? I just want to give you a hug, man. I already know what's about to happen, so you ..."

 

Sergio Olmos: What did you feel in that moment?

 

Jonathan B.: Just like this, giddy. Like a little kid on Christmas, you know what I mean? Because I know what's about to happen, a dream's about to come true, you know?

 

Al Letson: So Sergio, it looks like the risk Jonathan takes by continuing to play actually pays off. He's going to Portland State University. I want to bring back in your colleague, Lee van der Voo, for the big picture. Lee, you led the investigation in Oregon's concussion law. Jonathan got three concussions playing football. How typical is this?

 

Lee van der Voo: We don't really know. The law doesn't say anything about tracking repeat concussions and school records don't show that. A kid can get two concussions at one school and move to another with a clean slate, but I can tell you, well I was surprised at the number of concussions in soccer, for example, all the head-to-heads. Football remains by far the big one. Our data showed something like 600 concussions or suspected concussions over two years at schools that gave us enough good data to use.

 

Al Letson: 600 knocked heads. Is that a lot?

 

Lee van der Voo: Well if you break it out, it's roughly 50 concussions per thousand athletes. Anecdotally, as the person who enters those in a spreadsheet one by one, I can tell you that sometimes it really looks like a lot — five per game, four per game, two — it looks like a car crash more than a football game, but I mean, overall, Oregon numbers compare pretty closely to the only state that does any kind of comprehensive reporting on student concussion, and that's Michigan. Most states are like Oregon and they don't do data collection.

 

Al Letson: So you're the first ones to put all this data together. When you looked at it, were there some schools that reported more concussions than others?

 

Lee van der Voo: Yes, we found that if a school has an athletic trainer, then the rate of concussions reported at that school is about twice as high as at a school without a trainer. Remember, there was one at Jonathan's school, he went up to the stands to talk to Jonathan's dad after that third concussion? These are people who have some medical training and their job is to look out for the school athletes.

 

Lee van der Voo: Now, there could be other factors at play there, like maybe the size of the school, but experts in other parts of the country also say that they've noticed athletic trainers make a big difference in noticing and reporting more concussions.

 

Al Letson: Sergio, do you think Max's Law made a difference? I mean did it prevent Jonathan from getting hurt like Max?

 

Sergio Olmos: Getting hurt like Max, yes, in a couple of ways. One of them was education. Max's law requires high school coaches to get concussion training every year. As we talked about schools today, half the [inaudible] kids would suspect the concussions out of games or practice until they get medical cleared. So you could argue that Max's Law protected Jonathan from that kind of injury. Second impact, the kind that derailed Max's life.

 

Sergio Olmos: But we found that Max's Law has a blind side that still leaves athletes like Jonathan vulnerable.

 

Al Letson: That's where we'll pick up the story in a moment. Sergio and Lee, thanks so much.

 

Sergio Olmos: Thank you.

 

Lee van der Voo: Thanks.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, Jonathan concussions catch up with him in a way that nobody sees coming.

 

Detective Posey: This is not the end of the world, okay. You can recover from this, you will recover from this.

 

Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're talking about concussions and the laws that are supposed to protect student athletes.

 

Al Letson: In Oregon, the law seemed to work for Jonathan Boland. He's a young African-American quarterback who had three concussions in high school, was given time to recover from each, and then went on to win a football scholarship to Portland State University.

 

Al Letson: When he got there, Jonathan didn't play right away. He red shirted his freshman year, the official way to sit out a season so he'd be bigger, stronger, and better trained when he started as a sophomore. Jonathan's first year was fun. He got to know a lot of his teammates, had a girlfriend, did a lot of socializing. But there were also times he'd retreat from parties to a dim, quiet room to rest or study plays. Reporter Sergio Olmos of our partners, InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media Group, picks up Jonathan's story in the August before his sophomore year.

 

Sergio Olmos: It's two weeks until the first game of the season and Jonathan is excited. He practices knowing he's finally going to play in a college game. He plays receiver, running drills against the first string defense. Jonathan goes up to catch a pass and falls.

 

Jonathan B.: I did like a fade, and as I was going back, I'm caught in a fail back and just hit my head. I'm cussin' and like "Damn, not again," you know what I mean?

 

Sergio Olmos: Concussion number four. Jonathan doesn't say anything, but his head is hurting. As soon as practice is over, he goes home, to the house he shares with teammates just off campus. Jonathan's room is in the basement.

 

Jonathan B.: At night, there's like this little beam in my, it was in my basement. My lights were out and I'm walking down the stairs and I smacked my head on that. It kind of triggered what I did earlier that morning.

 

Sergio Olmos: What did you feel?

 

Jonathan B.: Definite head rush, blurriness. You know, my stomach started hurting. Couldn't go to sleep, couldn't go to sleep at all.

 

Sergio Olmos: The next day, he tells the team trainers what happened, and they put him on the university's concussion protocol — rest, then light exercise, returning to play when he's ready.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan expects to bounce back, but almost a month later, records show that he only run 10 yards before the headaches start. It takes Jonathan 39 days to pass a standard cognitive test.

 

Sergio Olmos: The team sends Jonathan to a doctor, who clears him to go back to full contact. But Jonathan still doesn't feel right. He goes to see his own family physician, then his coach.

 

Jonathan B.: I went up to Coach Barnum and I just said, "I think I just want to retire, I'm scared." First time I ever said I was scared to a coach, and first time I was ever scared in football, you know?

 

Sergio Olmos: Bruce Barnum is the coach who recruited Jonathan, the guy Jonathan hugged when he got the scholarship. This meeting is emotional as well.

 

Bruce Barnum: I remember tears in my office when he couldn't play anymore because of the concussion situation. He needs to walk away from the game.

 

Sergio Olmos: Coach Barnum decided to keep Jonathan on scholarship and made him an assistant, but he was off the team. Barnum knew it was going to be tough for Jonathan to leave the game. He'd seen it before.

 

Bruce Barnum: It's a disconnect, it's hard to explain. You'd done it for so long, and now all of a sudden, bam! It's taken from you?

 

911 Operator: 911.

 

Speaker 18: I got robbed.

 

Sergio Olmos: A few days after Jonathan decided to retire from football, the clerk at a mom and pop convenience store calls 911.

 

911 Operator: What's the address?

 

Sergio Olmos: It's near Jonathan's house, the place where he regularly buys snacks and drinks.

 

911 Operator: Okay, what did this person do?

 

Speaker 18: He just walked in and took the pistol and he says to open the door and give me the money [inaudible]

 

911 Operator: He had a gun?

 

Speaker 18: Yeah, yeah, he took [crosstalk]

 

Sergio Olmos: At four the next morning, another call, from a different convenience store, this time near Parkrose.

 

Speaker 19: I was just robbed by gunpoint.

 

911 Operator: White, black, Hispanic, Asian?

 

Speaker 19: Black.

 

911 Operator: Okay. Alone as far as you could tell?

 

Speaker 19: Yeah, but two people ran out after them ...

 

Sergio Olmos: A third night, it happens again.

 

Speaker 19: I don't know, he had a gun, he cocked it. I don't even know.

 

911 Operator: How much money did he get away with?

 

Speaker 19: Not any more than about 45, maybe.

 

911 Operator: 45 dollars?

 

Speaker 19: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

911 Operator: Wow.

 

Sergio Olmos: Police circulate photos from surveillance tapes. One shows a muscular young black man in a Portland State tank top. A police officer who sees it happens to follow college football, so three weeks after the robberies, officers show up to Portland State football practice and take Jonathan to headquarters for questioning. We were able to get the police video.

 

Detective Posey: So, you're probably wondering why you're here.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan looks nervous. He's sitting in a small interrogation room across from Detective Darren Posey. There's a table with a box of tissue between them.

 

Detective Posey: Why do you think you're here? Any ideas? You sure?

 

Jonathan B.: Well yeah, maybe. Definitely, yeah.

 

Detective Posey: What?

 

Jonathan B.: Did do a little convenience store with one of my friends.

 

Detective Posey: Okay. Yeah, you are absolutely correct. That's what it is.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan doesn't have a lawyer with him for the questioning. He never asked for one, even after the detective tells them that he has a right to have one there. Jonathan answers everything, describing how he acted as the lookout for his friend who had the gun. Then Detective Posey asked Jonathan about football.

 

Detective Posey: I saw some of the news reports and stuff about what had happened with the concussions and you not being able to play football anymore and [crosstalk]

 

Sergio Olmos: He tells Jonathan he wants to understand his frame of mind.

 

Detective Posey: I kind of was wondering that maybe there was a bit of disappointment kind of issue going on with that. Okay. Obviously, you feel bad about it, I can tell that.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan doesn't tell Detective Posey much about walking away from football, besides that he was pretty down about it. He says he was drinking and doing the drug Xanax during the holdups. But he says that he doesn't want to use that as an excuse for the crimes.

 

Sergio Olmos: The police ask Jonathan if they can search his locker, and he agrees. As an officer heads out to do that, Jonathan asks Detective Posey what's ahead.

 

Jim Boland: Am I staying here for a while, couple of days or so?

 

Detective Posey: What's going to happen is you're going to get booked ...

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan puts his head in his hands and starts to cry.

 

Detective Posey: It's not the end of the world, okay? You can recover from this. You will recover from this. You can mitigate this, okay? Have you ever been arrested before for anything? I don't think you have, as far as I can tell.

 

Sergio Olmos: Detective Posey's right. Jonathan has never been in trouble with the law before. His arrest makes headlines. The Oregonian publishes his mug shot. Coach Barnum reads the article.

 

Bruce Barnum: I was in shock. Three people arrested robbing a store, I am like, "Boland?" From what I knew, totally out of character.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan's mother Renee reacts the same way.

 

Renee Boland: Totally different person. That wasn't our child. Jonathan loves people, loves having fun, but that police report says Xanax, [inaudible 00:28:49], don't even know what that stuff is. Heavy drinking, marijuana, all that kind of stuff. It's like, wow, this dude went off the deep end.

 

Sergio Olmos: It's like what people are seeing in some NFL players — erratic behavior and substance abuse, difficulty thinking and even suicide. These are symptoms linked to a brain disease known as CTE, believed to be caused by multiple hits to the head. Players who sued the NFL in 2011 said the league suppressed information about CTE and other brain diseases linked to playing football.

 

Speaker 21: Hard hitting numbers today in a new study about football and head trauma. 99% of the brains of former NFL player studied were damaged, out of 100 [crosstalk]

 

Sergio Olmos: For high school athletes, you might think that concussion laws in Oregon and the rest of the country would protect kids from the effects of multiple concussions, but they don't. The laws were written to protect kids from getting a second concussion before they've even recovered from the first. They're not designed to raise red flags about symptoms that build over time.

 

David Kracke: I'm not sure we can legislate that.

 

Sergio Olmos: Here's David Kracke, a lawyer and brain injury expert who helped write Max's Law in Oregon.

 

David Kracke: Some people have terrible effects after two concussions, some people have terrible effects after five concussions. To be clear, the medical literature demonstrates that somewhere around 88% of people who suffer one concussion will recover fully from that concussion.

 

Sergio Olmos: So it seems the law prevents another Max, but not another Jonathan Boland.

 

David Kracke: As far as, yeah, preventing the effects of multiple concussions over time, yes, I think you're right.

 

Sergio Olmos: News of Jonathan's arrest spreads. Friends called to offer the family support. A local sportswriter gives Renee the number for a criminal defense attorney.

 

Renee Boland: I called him and the guy said, "You know, before I can even hear or start talking to you, $60,000 I need upfront." I almost but fainted. That was crazy.

 

Sergio Olmos: She talks to a few more lawyers, but they're all too expensive, so Jonathan is left with a public defender. Renee immediately brings up concussions.

 

Renee Boland: The first day I took him down there, I say I hope they're going to look at that Jonathan had just had a concussion, with Portland State. Don't dismiss the fact that he's already had three.

 

Sergio Olmos: The public defender orders a neuro-psychological exam. The doctor who evaluates Jonathan writes that concussions had affected his ability to think rationally, and that he was depressed from losing football, and he was vulnerable to substance use and negative peer influence. The doctor wrote that Jonathan's symptoms were likely made worse by multiple head injuries.

 

Sergio Olmos: Researchers are starting to look at the possible links between concussions and crime.

 

Joseph Schwartz: There's pretty consistent evidence indicating that brain injury is a significant risk factor for delinquent behavior.

 

Sergio Olmos: Joseph Schwartz is a criminologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha. [inaudible] that changes in self control and behavior in young people six months after they got a brain injury.

 

Joseph Schwartz: We're seeing that brain injury resulting in temporarily at least, lower levels of self-control, which in turn is resulting in increased levels of delinquency.

 

Sergio Olmos: His study tracked the impact of one brain injury at a time. I tell him about Jonathan's four concussions.

 

Joseph Schwartz: Those injuries could definitely accumulate over that period of time and we can see they are much greater than the sum of their parts.

 

Sergio Olmos: An association between concussions and crime certainly has skeptics, in part because it's difficult to measure these symptoms. Experts tell us that courts rarely consider any brain injury as a full defense, something that would let criminals off the hook, but head injuries have been used to argue for lower sentences. Just a few months before Jonathan's case, another Portland State football player assaulted two police officers and brought up his concussions in court. Jonathan was trying to do the same.

 

Jonathan B.: That was my main argument, my concussions. If I did not stop playing football, I wouldn't be here right now because I would be at a football game, I'd be at football practice, I'd be doing something else other than robbing some convenience stores, you know what I mean?

 

Speaker 24: Mr. Boland, can you hear me?

 

Jonathan B.: Yes, ma'am.

 

Speaker 24: Okay, you're here for arraignment on your indictment ...

 

Sergio Olmos: A week after his arrest, Jonathan appears for his indictment hearing. He's wearing a blue jumpsuit and joins by video conference from the county jail.

 

Speaker 24: Go ahead, there's a lawyer from your lawyer's office here in the courtroom.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan is charged with first degree armed robbery. In Oregon, that means mandatory time. For three robberies, a minimum of 22 and a half years. He and his lawyer worry about how a jury trial might play out, so they negotiate with prosecutors for a plea deal. Renee sat in on the talks.

 

Renee Boland: That's first thing they said, "We're not bringing in the head concussion."

 

Sergio Olmos: That's what the district attorney told you, we're not bringing ...

 

Renee Boland: We're not even making that a issue here.

 

Sergio Olmos: Michael Reese, your defense, what did he say to that?

 

Renee Boland: Oh he just ... A lot of times, when they say stuff like that, he just kind of look like whoa, like he was surprised. You know, he gave that look like, "Whoa." He just said that and that was it.

 

Sergio Olmos: The prosecutor's office told us that they did take the concussions into account. In the end, Jonathan pled guilty to two charges. Prosecutors asked the judge for the lowest possible sentence.

 

Michael Reese: Good morning, Your Honor, this is Michael Reese. This is Mr. Boland. We're ready to proceed with sentencing, Your Honor.

 

Judge Greenlick: All right, thank you.

 

Sergio Olmos: At sentencing, Judge Michael Greenlick asked Jonathan how the concussions affect him.

 

Jonathan B.: Foggy vision, I can't see clearly in my left eye, sometimes I get headaches, every day. But like I said, I'm alive.

 

Judge Greenlick: Well, Mr. Boland, you know, I feel pretty strongly that given everything I know about you and also the fact that what brought you into that, doing crime, probably had a lot to do with medical issues that you're revealing now, I feel like you're going to figure this out and take things on a really positive direction and get a lot out of life.

 

Jonathan B.: I appreciate that a hundred percent.

 

Sergio Olmos: With that, he sentenced Jonathan to seven and a half years in prison, with no chance at early parole. That's the mandatory minimum for first degree robbery in Oregon.

 

Renee Boland: This is not going to be in here, this should be ... that letter should be ... oh my gosh, I'm frustrated now.

 

Sergio Olmos: Back at home, in Parkrose, Jonathan's mom Renee sorts through paperwork from his case. He's been in prison 10 months at this point. Renee can't help but wonder what might have been different if they could have paid a private attorney. She still hopes to somehow find a way to reduce his sentence despite the mandatory minimum.

 

Renee Boland: My goal, again, is to prove to the courts that Jonathan's concussion is the foundation.

 

Sergio Olmos: Last spring, she asked his old high school, Parkrose, for video of Jonathan's games and any other records they have. She got this email back.

 

Renee Boland: They said, "Renee, we are here to support Jon 100%, but in order for us to release any information, we need a letter stating that Parkrose is harmless of anything that happened to Jonathan."

 

Sergio Olmos: In other words, she has to agree not to sue them. Renee was offended, but she agreed. We showed that email to a couple of lawyers who called the request outrageous and probably a breach of law. The superintendent who asked Renee for that promise has left the district and refused to speak with us.

 

Sergio Olmos: Renee sees her son regularly, visiting him at Oregon State Penitentiary, but she still struggles to understand how this all happened. She knew there were risks to playing football, but she didn't imagine this. Sometimes she wonders if she and her husband could have done something differently along the way.

 

Renee Boland: I think in some ways — not a hundred percent — in some ways, we failed Jonathan, to say, "What else do you love to do? You are more than a football player." I think we were all so on the pedestal and excited about Jonathan because of his talent, his skill, to we, we didn't think about it and it just kind of went over our head.

 

Speaker 27: Visitors are not to have contact with inmates except when this included in the purpose of the visit.

 

Sergio Olmos: I visited Jonathan at Oregon State Penitentiary last year.

 

Speaker 27: You got to step up and tell her your name.

 

Sergio Olmos: Sergio Olmos.

 

Sergio Olmos: From a guard station, I'm taken into a conference room upstairs from the cell blocks.

 

Speaker 27: Okay. [inaudible] Jonathan?

 

Jonathan B.: Yes.

 

Speaker 27: All right, that's fine.

 

Sergio Olmos: Jonathan seems a little nervous but excited to talk. He's gained over 30 pounds since playing football, lifting weights in prison. He says he spends a lot of time in Bible study as well. I ask him about what plans he has when he gets out. He says he's thinking about coaching football, teaching the lessons that he's learned.

 

Jonathan B.: I'm going to definitely preach about concussion, I'm going to definitely preach about getting hurt, definitely preaching about speaking out if anything is going on with you. I kind of want to start anew, you know what I mean? Like right now, I'm glad I'm doing this, like this is ... I wish everybody in the world could go to jail, I really do. Because when you know, you have everything stripped from you, you can't even see your family, I guess you're not going to take a lot of things for granted.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Sergio Olmos for bringing us Jonathan's story, and thanks to Lee van der Voo and our partners at InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media Group. The concussions project is called Rattled. You can find it an revealnews.org, along with a map comparing concussion laws around the country.

 

Al Letson: With risks from concussion so high, more people are asking, is high school football even worth it? When we come back, a visit to a community that says yes.

 

Gary Frost: Father, thank you for the greatest game ever played — football.

 

Al Letson: This is Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We've been talking today about kids and concussions and whether football is worth the risk. The number of high school students suiting up for football has dropped almost every year over the past decade even as more students play sports overall. But I recently traveled to a place where football is much more than a game.

 

Gary Frost: It's Youngstown, a Steeler town, or Browns town.

 

Speaker 32: That dude will say you're getting ready to start a fight, because I'm a Steeler fan and he's a Browns. He's getting ready to start a fight.

 

Gary Frost: I aint trying to start no fight. I aint trying ... I was just trying to understand, is all ...

 

Al Letson: Youngstown, Ohio is about halfway between Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, and Cleveland, home of the Browns. Youngstown has its team too, the East High School Golden Bears.

 

Mayor: All right, now it's time for the football awards.

 

Al Letson: It's a freezing Thursday night in December, and about a hundred people are gathered in a church banquet hall for the end of season award ceremony.

 

Mayor: As the mayor of this city, I'd be honored, which I never thought I'd say this, I love the East High Golden Bears.

 

Al Letson: When he was a kid, the mayor went to another high school that was a rival of the Golden Bears.

 

Mayor: Right now, can we have [inaudible] for the [inaudible] players?

 

Al Letson: But his school closed years ago, along with nearby steel mills and a lot of other businesses in Youngstown.

 

Mayor: [inaudible 00:41:17], come out please.

 

Al Letson: As the kids are called to the front, they walk past round tables with blue table cloths and gold napkins. Balloon and flower centerpieces are done up in team colors too. Tonight is a big night for Youngstown because the football made the state playoffs for the first time since 1997. But it's bigger than football. Rich Shepas is the chief of athletics for the school district.

 

Rich Shepas: We expect to revive the city through East High School, through the Golden Bears, and as we continue to success here, we want to do the same thing across town and bring back the same kind of pride and tradition there.

 

Al Letson: So that's a lot of hope to pin on high school football, and whether or not the Golden Bears end up giving their hometown the spark it's been waiting for, there is something joyful about watching fit, happy young men proud of themselves and their team. Still, I wanted to know how concussions fit into this picture. I sat down at the table with a bunch of players.

 

Al Letson: So you guys all on the football team, right?

 

Speaker 30: Yes, sir.

 

Al Letson: You guys had an amazing year, huh?

 

Speaker 30: Yes, sir.

 

Male: Yes, sir.

 

Al Letson: Have any of you guts taken a heavy hit?

 

Male: I gave a lot, though.

 

Al Letson: You gave ... what position you play?

 

Male: D end.

 

Al Letson: Any offensive players here?

 

Male: Running back.

 

Male: Running back.

 

Tim Davis: So you take a lot of hits, man.

 

Al Letson: That's running back Tim Davis. His mom, Berna Davis, is at the next table.

 

Al Letson: How does that feel when you see him going through and getting hit?

 

Female: Heart attack. Like my heart starts beating real fast, like, "Oh my God, is he getting hurt?" I've been to a game where some boy ended up unconscious on a Saturday game, so it's always scary.

 

Al Letson: But not scary enough to pull her own son out of the game.

 

Female: It's what he loves. I can't take away what he loves.

 

Al Letson: So your mom's told me you got a concussion when you was 13, but you decided to keep playing?

 

Female: Yeah.

 

Al Letson: Tell me about that. Why?

 

Tim Davis: Because like, it's like my whole life, for real. I really like football, it was just like a passion. I wanted to keep playing and keep doing it. I just can't stop, because sports is my whole life and it's all I want to do.

 

Al Letson: For Tim's dad, DeWayne McCullough, concussions brought out his son's determination.

 

DeWayne M.: He just kept being dedicated, you know, and I love that about him. Not give up. Most kids give up. He just wanted to keep going.

 

Al Letson: DeWayne played when he was a kid and tells me football kept him out of trouble.

 

DeWayne M.: Most definitely. It kept me [inaudible] guys that's in the streets, you know. My mom was always on me and I just ... I just wanted to be a part of the team, winning team.

 

Al Letson: We're not from this area. Is there a lot of trouble to be had for young black men in Youngstown?

 

Viola Schiller: Yes, it's ... you don't hear about the killings?

 

Al Letson: That's football mom Viola Schiller. There was a triple homicide shortly before we got to town. The victims were close to some of the high school athletes.

 

Viola Schiller: I mean, the only way out in this life is either you get a education, you play some type of sports, and pray to God that somebody take you up under their wing and then you get a scholarship and be able to get rich. I mean, what else? You got another choice, either you dead or you in prison for the rest of your life.

 

Al Letson: As for the risk of concussions ...

 

Viola Schiller: I just feel like, let them get hit. That's the way ... either you got to be rough or you're going to be soft out there. Let them play. Play ball.

 

Al Letson: Tonight's featured speaker is football pro Mike Flores.

 

MIke Flores: I'm so ecstatic about this football, this community ...

 

Al Letson: He's from here. He played for East High School in the 1980s, then went on to play defensive end in the NFL. His speech goes down memory lane, back to his high school glory days. We grab him after and ask him about injuries.

 

MIke Flores: I don't want to say this because you might print this, but I actually spent 30 days in a brain injury facility because of concussions so ... I wouldn't change a thing, because football brought things out of me that I didn't know I had. It's a warrior's game. You know what you're getting when you get into it.

 

Al Letson: The next morning, I go to visit Professor Jessica Wallace. She runs the master's program for athletic trainers at Youngstown State University. She was at the banquet too.

 

Prof. Wallace: I'd love to be around these kids because sport made them feel good. Football made them feel good about themselves.

 

Al Letson: Jessica did her training in Detroit. An incident there helped put concussions in perspective for her. She was working with a high school team and after one game, some players got beat up. They'd been waiting for the city bus to go home.

 

Prof. Wallace: Concussion at sport is like nothing compared to ... you know, a kid was in the hospital from getting beat up waiting to go home.

 

Al Letson: Recent research connects multiple head injuries to long-term brain disease like dementia, but Jessica argues that the health benefits of staying active outweigh the risk of football concussions.

 

Prof. Wallace: There's a lot of obesity, there's a lot of heart disease, there's a lot of diabetes, and it's due to inactivity. If we take activities away that kids like to do, that they feel proud doing, it's going to lead to a lot of bigger health-related problems. More problems, honestly, than the risk of getting the concussion.

 

Al Letson: I was listening to a professor and he was basically saying that if your child has taken like two or three big hits, you should not let them play in these sports anymore. What do you say to that?

 

Prof. Wallace: I would have to disagree, just because knowing what we know about concussion, like the big hit, you know, some of the biomechanics, it is different per person. Just like somebody could break a bone. They can still play sport because the body has enough time to heal. Same thing with the brain.

 

Al Letson: That's not always the case. It depends on a lot of things, like your health. How hard you were hit? Was it a severe or mild concussion? The treatment you got. All of those things play a factor. Jessica tells me that in high school, it's important to have an athletic trainer who can pull kids from play when they get hit and make sure they have enough time to heal. That lines up with what we heard earlier in the show.

 

Al Letson: Even in this heartland of football, some people want to replace tackle with flag football, at least for little kids. The town's flag football league went to the nationals last month and brought back a championship trophy. I ask Jessica Wallace, the professor at Youngstown University, what she says to people who think tackle football should end?

 

Al Letson: People who don't quite understand the culture stuff, they're just thinking that you are sacrificing your children to this.

 

Prof. Wallace: Yeah, I understand that perspective, but I guess sometimes you just have to take a step back because our science has come pretty far with concussions. So, I mean our definition, our care our treatment, our follow-ups, and so I think that parents and other people should know that besides the big hits that they're seeing on the game, there's a lot of really good things going on socially and health-wise, that they should also start to consider rather than say, "Oh, you're sacrificing your kids to violence." Well, you're sacrificing them to a lot of really good things too.

 

Gary Frost: I want to ask of all the players, the cheerleaders, and the band [inaudible]

 

Al Letson: Back at the awards banquet, Gary Frost focuses on good things. He was a Golden Bear back in the day, and he's a pastor now.

 

Gary Frost: Father, thank you for the greatest game ever played — football. It's the game that has the strange ball. You never know how it's going to bounce, but you have to adjust to the balance of the ball.

 

Al Letson: Life and football in Youngstown, Ohio.

 

Al Letson: Thanks for listening to today's show. If you want to see how your state concussion laws compare with other states, check out our map at revealnews.org. If you're wondering what you should ask your school about how it handles concussions, text the word "football" to 63735. Once again, text "football" to 63735. We'll send you a list of questions to ask your school and invite you to share what you learned with us. You can text "Stop" at any time. Standard data rates apply.

 

Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week's show is Emily Harris. Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to John Schrag from the Pamplin Media Group. Thanks also to WETA's BrainLine for audio assistance. Jacob Fenton, Sinduja Rangarajan, Casey Miner, and Michael Corey provided research and data analysis.

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They also had help this week from Kaitlin Benz.

 

Al Letson: Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Like. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.