The recent debacle surrounding the Michigan football team’s handling of sophomore quarterback Shane Morris’ health inevitably turns the discussion toward concussions and player safety policies. A recently released study found that of 79 deceased NFL players whose brains were examined, 76 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. Of a larger pool including 128 former professional, semi-pro, college and high school players, 80 percent tested positive for CTE. Concussions can also have serious consequences in the short term, as a second hit to the head of a concussed player can result in serious permanent injury or death. The standard line is that protecting student-athletes is a priority for the University and the NCAA, but these institutions must prove this through action rather than words.
The NCAA’s official concussion policy contains guidelines that each of its member schools must follow. These policies mandate that institutions have a yearly concussion education session for players, a process for taking players out of games when they exhibit “signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion,” a policy that prohibits concussed athletes from returning to athletic activity for the rest of the day and a policy that requires medical clearance for concussed athletes wishing to return to athletic activity. These steps are important, but there remains a lack of oversight and ability to enforce these guidelines. For an issue as important as player safety, unenforced guidelines that are followed at the schools’ discretion lack the power and enforceability that would come with clearly defined rules and subsequent consequences for failure to comply. Otherwise, the policy not only poses a risk to players’ careers, but also to their lives.
The University and NCAA must also be proactive in addressing the growing problem of concussions. Recently, the lack of a proper response to the issue led to a $70-million settlement by the NCAA in a class action lawsuit. Pursuing new helmet technology that aids in concussion detection from helmet-makers such as Riddell and Xenith should be enthusiastically backed by the NCAA. With the potential unreliability of on-field concussion examinations, the NCAA should also support new testing protocols such as a proposed breathalyzer test that can detect concussions.
At his press conference after Saturday’s loss against Minnesota, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke commented on Morris’ injury, later determined to be a concussion, saying he’s a “tough kid” and “if he didn’t want to (play) he would’ve come to the sideline or stayed down.” However, athletes are immersed in a culture of toughness and playing through injury, and often come off the field only as a last resort. Hoke’s comments reinforce this drive to be tough at the risk of personal safety. Because of this mindset, important decisions that impact player safety cannot be left up to players alone. These decisions not only fall on the coaching staff and medical teams on the sideline, but also on the NCAA and its conferences to make sure schools follow through on the commitment to the health and well-being of its student-athletes.
In order to help remove the human element from determining whether a potentially concussed player should be removed from a game, the NCAA should expand the types of situations in which such a removal must take place. Currently, a player must leave the field if his helmet comes off during a play, but this rule should be expanded to include players involved in helmet-to-helmet contact penalties and any other flagged penalties involving a hit to the helmet, such as roughing the passer. This would give the medical staff an opportunity for a quick check for any signs of concussion-like symptoms, which, if found, would then allow them to conduct the full concussion assessment. Since the hit on Morris was flagged, this expansion of the rules would have forced him to leave the field for a play. Michigan is also instituting a plan starting with Saturday’s game vs. Rutgers to have a health professional in the press box to look for potential player injuries and have two-way radio communication between the sideline staff and the press box. This setup, proven necessary by the Morris incident, should not just be a standard for Michigan, but across college football.
While the situation with Morris was a huge mistake, it also serves as a wakeup call for the University and for other schools around the country to prevent repeats of the situation and continue to make player safety a priority. Better concussion protocol is essential for players’ futures, both on the field and off.