One of the most talked-about names in sports injury research had a fairly short-lived football career. “I was small, and I was injured more than I was healthy,” says Kevin Guskiewicz (Grad ’95) of his high school football days. “But I loved the sport.”

One benefit of those injuries, however, was that they sparked in Guskiewicz an interest in sports medicine, a field in which he has become one of the country’s leading experts on concussions in sport.

After graduating from West Chester University in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, Guskiewicz worked for two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was struck by how coaches and trainers treated head injuries.

Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor at the University of North Carolina, was one of the first researchers to identify the potentially damaging long-term effects of sustaining multiple concussions. The NCAA uses his testing program as a model. Photo by Donn Young
“It was a very arbitrary manner—we didn’t have sophisticated testing in return-to-play decisions,” Guskiewicz says.

Guskiewicz decided he wanted to delve further into sports medicine, so he left the Steelers in 1992 to begin his doctoral work at UVA. Studying under Dave Perrin, the former director of kinesiology at the Curry School, Guskiewicz focused on athletes and the issue of balance.

After attending a conference on head injuries, Perrin suggested to Guskiewicz that they apply a test for balance they’d been developing to concussions.

The two worked to develop a balance test specific to concussive injury, called the Balance Error Scoring System. The system uses a computer to evaluate a person’s memory, attention, recall, word recognition and history of concussions, followed by a physical balance test.

For his dissertation, Guskiewicz used the system to test Virginia football and soccer players before their seasons began, along with student athletes at St. Anne’s-Belfield. “Then I waited for people to have concussions,” Guskiewicz says. Nineteen athletes suffered concussions over an 18-month time span. Guskiewicz tested them again and found that the balance test could indeed be an important measuring tool in evaluating the effects of sustaining a concussion.

While several organizations, including the NFL, were initially hesitant to heed the results of Guskiewicz’s published studies throughout the early 2000s, many universities have now adopted his testing program and the NCAA uses it as a model.

“The goal of all of this is to remove the guesswork in concussion management,” Guskiewicz says. “Twenty years ago, we’d ask athletes, ‘How do you feel? Are you dizzy?’ and these are subjective indicators. This [testing] removes that guesswork.”

Now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Guskiewicz and his team of researchers have conducted numerous studies with athletes related to head injury, and he was one of the first researchers to identify the potentially damaging long-term effects of sustaining multiple concussions. In 2011, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, receiving $500,000 to support his research. There’s little debate that concussions can have damaging results. But Guskiewicz says he believes in the importance of athletics—two of his sons play organized football—and he believes it’s better to focus on how to make athletics safer.

“Fifty percent of high school and collegiate athletes say they’ve lied about having a concussion,” Guskiewicz says. “With this work, we’re trying to close the gap on the number of undiagnosed concussions.”