School district suggests its football players never participated in troubled U of Maryland chocolate milk/concussions study

It’s been about two months since requested that the University of Maryland release public documents pertaining to a troubled study about chocolate milk and concussions — a request that the university is bound by law to fulfill within 30 days. Earle Holland comments on the university’s foot-dragging in a separate post today and explains why it’s not a good idea to try to run out the clock on this story. Meanwhile, Andrew Holtz has been trying to find out more from Washington County (Maryland) Public Schools, whose student football players supposedly participated in the study. As reported below, he learned that the school district’s account of events is vastly different from what a university news release suggests happened in the study. In fact, it makes us wonder if any study of this chocolate milk was actually conducted.

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Bottles of Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk, which was the brand of milk used in the Maryland study.

When is a study not a study?

That’s one of the things we are trying to figure out in the ongoing bafflement that continues to radiate from a University of Maryland news release headlined “Concussion-Related Measures Improved in High School Football Players Who Drank New Chocolate Milk, UMD Study Shows”. The release quoted lead researcher Professor Jae Kun Shim, “Athletes who drank the milk, compared to those who did not, scored higher after the season than before it started, specifically in the areas of verbal and visual memory.”

It is a basic requirement that participants in studies give consent

The university news release said several Washington County (Maryland) Public Schools participated in the study. But when I asked the district whether parents gave consent, Communications Officer Richard Wright replied by email, “Students were not asked to be part of any study, therefore parent permission was not necessary.” Wright added that the researchers used publicly-available concussion data. I wrote back noting my puzzlement, “How can you say the students were not asked to be part of the study when some were instructed to drink the chocolate milk and others weren’t, in order to gather data for Professor Shim and Fifth Quarter Fresh?”

Sharply different portrayals

Wright’s response indicates a sharp disparity between what the school district says took place and what the University of Maryland news release says happened.

“I’m not versed on the study, but I do know that students were not ‘instructed’ to drink the milk. Quite frankly, it’s troubling to me that you or anyone would think that a school system would purposely ‘instruct’ students to drink or eat anything. Students have dozens of food and beverage options presented to them every day, and they are permitted to choose those items based on personal preference,” Wright wrote. He ended with, “You can direct all your future questions about the study to the University of Maryland.” Wright and other school officials have not responded to further questions.

So based on the scenario sketched out by high school officials, chocolate milk was offered to high school athletes, but no one was told to drink it and no individual health data was provided to Prof. Shim. That seems to be at odds with the statement from the news release that:

Experimental groups drank Fifth Quarter Fresh after each practice and game, sometimes six days a week, while control groups did not consume the chocolate milk.

And without individual data, how would Prof. Shim be able to conclude that:

‘Non-concussed athletes who drank Maryland-produced Fifth Quarter Fresh showed better cognitive and motor scores over nine test measures after the season as compared to the control group.

‘Concussed athletes drinking the milk improved cognitive and motor scores in four measures after the season as compared to those who did not.”

Yet another oddity… the news release stated that:

“Officials in Washington County, Md., home to all seven high schools participating in the study, are now considering the broad adoption of Fifth Quarter Fresh in sports programs throughout its school system.

“There is nothing more important than protecting our student-athletes,” said Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools. “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.”

A study without consent or no study at all?

So the district superintendent endorsed the results of a study that his communications office says could not have happened the way it was described by the University of Maryland. I’d sure like to understand what’s going on, but since late February, Mr. Wright has held to his position that he will not respond to our questions.

We have been hoping the university records we requested in January would shed light on these central questions about human experimentation. We are still waiting.

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