Written by Bill Pennington
Originally Published May 5, 2013
In 2011, quarterback Peyton Manning suggested he purposely flubbed a preseason neurocognitive baseline test to make the results of any postconcussion test look better, which might have improved his chances of returning to play sooner.
The attempted deception, aimed at getting around safeguards meant to protect athletes, has reached the youth sports level, medical professionals say.
“We hear kids talking about it — about sandbagging the test,” said Richard Ginsburg, the director of psychological services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s youth sports concussion clinic. “Some seem to think they can fool the test, or they know of someone who has tried.”
Several other doctors and staff members at youth concussion clinics nationwide said they had also met with patients who discussed intentionally underperforming on the baseline test, the most common of which is called an imPACT test.
Manning, shortly after his admission, insisted he was joking. But reports of other N.F.L. players trying to subvert the test are rampant. Baseline testing is intended to establish a “normal” score of mental acuity by measuring things like learning, problem solving and memory skills. When a player has had a concussion, the test is repeated and that score is compared with the baseline score, which may reveal a cognitive deficit that suggests that a player’s brain has not recovered enough for a return to action.
But if a player willfully scores lower on the original test, in theory at least, the player has a chance of meeting those lowered results even after a concussion.
Few medical professionals who deal with the testing and concussion patients think sandbagging the test is possible. Or at the least, they say, the success ratio is very low.
“Trying to flub the test is a tactic that will not work,” said Alex Taylor, a neuropsychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital who works with youth concussion patients. “It’s out there that you can do it, but the test has validity factors built in that would tip someone off to what you were doing.
“Plus, it’s only one measure we use to see if you have recovered.”
Dr. William Meehan of Boston Children’s cited a study last year in which 75 collegiate athletes were instructed to try to fail a baseline test.
“They were told how to do it, and there was some reward offered for succeeding,” Meehan said. “Only 11 percent were able to do it, and that’s after the researcher told them how to do it. The chances of getting away with sandbagging is very small.”
Taylor added: “To administer any kind of cognitive testing, you have to be trained in how to measure the tests. So we know how to spot things. Peyton Manning is a smart guy, but I could catch him.”