Big Ten Uses Its Head on Concussions
The Big Ten has approved new concussion protocols, making it the first "Power 5" conference to standardize its treatment of head injuries. It’s time for the rest of the NCAA to follow suit.
Under the new standards, the Big Ten will issue penalties for failure to comply with reporting requirements, rules on removing players from the field and other aspects of the association’s concussion guidelines. Perhaps most importantly, the Big Ten will also add independent athletic trainers not affiliated with any school to assess concussive symptoms.
As the conference's statement notes, the new protocols are moving “from best practices and minimum requirements for schools to regulatory standards by the conference,” taking mere recommendations by the NCAA and making them official policy with consequences for violations.
These hardened rules follow several high-profile cases of disregard for player safety. In September, Michigan quarterback Shane Morris was put back in a game after suffering a head-to-head hit that left him stumbling on the field. Michigan’s athletic director blamed “a serious lack of communication,” claiming that the team neurologist had decided Morris needed to be evaluated, but before he could get to him, an athletic trainer who hadn’t seen the hit cleared him to return for one last play.
Last week, Ohio State defensive lineman and wrestler Kosta Karageorge was found in a dumpster, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Karageorge had a lengthy history of sports-related head injuries and had been complaining that concussions had his head messed up. According to Tom Ryan, Ohio State’s wrestling coach, Karageorge had not sustained any concussions while on the wrestling team. Buckeyes football coach Urban Meyer said he was not allowed to discuss a player's medical history, though a team spokesman did point out that Karageorge was a reserve who had never played in a game.
Both Morris and Karageorge involve powerhouse football schools with storied histories of winning and success. They stand in high contrast to the circumstances surrounding Pete Mangurian, who resigned as head coach of Columbia’s football last week amid accusations of player abuse. According to the Columbia Spectator (disclosure: I used to be the sports editor of the Spectator), a group of 25 players sent a letter to the university’s president and trustee chairman alleging that Mangurian had verbally abused them and forced them to continue playing after suffering concussions. “There are several players who will speak to the fact that Mangurian told them to return to practice, that they are faking their concussions, and that they are being soft if they sit out for their concussion injury,” the letter states.
There are lessons to be learned from each of these cases, and the NCAA as a whole would do well to take a cue from the Big Ten’s new protocols. The requirement for an independent trainer goes a long way in addressing the inherent conflict of interest of team-employed doctors, a problem that goes far beyond college. These trainers will be assess potential symptoms from the booth and contact officials and physicians on the field, intended to eliminate whatever communication confusion led to Morris returning to the game.
Meanwhile, Mangurian’s case dispels the notion that the concussion issue is limited to high-profile programs with pressure to maintain success. It doesn’t matter if you’re a perennial bowl contender or a team that hasn’t won a game in more than two seasons: The potential to skirt concussion protocol at the expense of player health exists throughout the NCAA.
Karageorge’s case is bit murkier. There is a lot of misinformation out there that minimizes the long-term effects of concussions. But while the research is still largely in its nascent stages, there are a growing number of studies that suggest a link between repeated concussions and depression and suicide.
The need for more research is clear, but the NCAA -- and, more importantly, its players -- can’t wait for a definitive link to be established before it starts taking its own “guidelines” on concussions seriously. As it stands, there’s too much leeway for excuses and abuse without hard rules and serious consequences for violating them.
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