Roundtable: Protecting college football players from head injuries
As Michigan has reeled from the debacle that ensued after quarterback Shane Morris took a nasty hit from Minnesota defensive end Thieren Cockran, the question of how to best protect football players from dangerous head injuries has received renewed interest. Football, by its nature, is a violent game that puts players at risk. However, as the Wolverines' handling of Morris clearly illuminated, there are ways coaches and staffs can protect, or endanger, their players.
Morris, already limping from an ankle injury, received a hard upper body hit from Cockran, and appeared disoriented as he got up. The quarterback even seemed to lose his balance, needing to lean on an offensive lineman to remain upright. However, Morris remained on the field for another player before he was removed. He then re-entered the game when backup Devin Gardner's helmet came off, forcing him to sit out for one play. Michigan could have inserted third-stringer Russell Bellomy or called a timeout and reinserted Gardner rather than play Morris for another play.
The issues of what Michigan's coaching and medical staffs knew about Morris' injury -- athletic director Dave Brandon revealed early Tuesday morning that Morris suffered a concussion -- and when they have been the subject of debate. SI.com's Andy Staples, Martin Rickman and Lindsay Schnell discuss the errors in Michigan's actions, what the Wolverines coaches should have done differently and the changes needed at the national level to better protect players from head injuries and care for the players who do suffer them.
The statement is credited to athletic director Dave Brandon only -- more on that later -- and it admits the Michigan coaching and medical staffs bungled their handling of Morris after the quarterback took a shot to the head in the fourth quarter of the Wolverines' 30-14 loss to Minnesota. Basically, according to Brandon, no one -- other than the 80,000 or so people in the stands and million or so watching at home -- saw Morris take the hit. No one on the coaching staff. No one on the medical staff. Having been on a sideline, it is plausible that the coaches could have missed it because they were watching Morris’ pass and readying for the next play call. It’s also plausible that medical staffers may not have had the best vantage point to see the hit. There are a lot of bodies moving around, and everyone is trying to do a job. More plausible is that several people saw it and assumed everyone else had as well. And no one opened their mouths to communicate the possibility that the quarterback was concussed because they figured everyone already knew. I still don’t believe Michigan coach Brady Hoke would knowingly endanger Morris. I do, however, believe that this was a complete systemic failure that fairly accurately sums up Hoke’s soon-to-be-ending tenure at Michigan.
The statement goes on to say that Morris sustained a concussion and a high ankle sprain during the game. Later, the statement acknowledges that the concussion diagnosis was made Sunday night, which is interesting because head coach Brady Hoke didn’t seem to know about the concussion during his press conference Monday. This probably tells us that Hoke is done and Brandon is desperately trying to save his job. We’ll see if it works.
The statement says that in the future, a member of the medical staff will be stationed in the press box with access to instant replays so potential injuries don’t get missed. This is forward progress, and this is something every program needs to do. It’s easy to miss injuries, and this can only help.
Still, the handling of the incident raises questions. Martin, feel free to take a stab at these:
- Some don’t believe Brandon’s assertion that no one in a position of authority saw the hit. I’m inclined to believe Brandon is telling the truth, but with the addendum that it only highlights the incompetence of the regime. What say you?
- Did Brandon throw Hoke under the bus, run him over, back up and run him over again? Or did he run him over three times?
- How much responsibility does the possibly concussed player have to alert the trainers to a potential head injury? No player ever wants to leave the game.
Martin Rickman: To your first question, Andy, it's the incompetence overall that worries me the most. Everyone in a position of power here is most concerned with protecting themselves, so they're passing blame around. "I didn't see it." "We didn't have enough evidence." Hoke's trying to keep his job. Brandon's trying to keep his job. At the crux of it, this is a person we're talking about. A kid who has his whole life ahead of him. And the best we can get out of an athletic department at one of the most prestigious football programs in the country is, "We should have done better."
This is awful on all levels. And the problem is it's not unique to Hoke or the Michigan program. This is a systemic problem in all of football at every level. It was just two years ago that UNC had a similar incident with quarterback Bryn Renner and coach Larry Fedora.
I'm not putting Morris at fault in this. In the heat of the game you never really know how injured you are. How many times have we seen a guy play through an injury and find out later he finished the game with a torn pectoral or a torn ACL? You're raised in the game to think giving in to concussions (and injuries in general) are embarrassing. They mean you aren't man enough to stay in the game. We still have a wave of guys who would rather keep quiet and play through the injury than tell the whole truth. You "saw stars." You were "shaken up." Until we prove to them that it's okay to come out and consider their long-term safety, this isn't going away. It starts at the top. Programs need to put a system in place to protect these kids, and it needs to filter down into high school and youth football.
Hoke -- and Nussmeier, who said his conversation with Morris was, "Are you okay?" -- aren't without blame, but there is plenty of fault to go around. Coaches and players shouldn't be the ones deciding whether a kid is okay to stay in the game. It should be passed onto independent trainers and medical personnel whose job it is to monitor and make these sort of determinations.
You wouldn't trust a football coach to perform a root canal, would you? So why the hell are we expecting them to be the ones to decide whether a kid can stay in the game after suffering head trauma?
It just came out Monday that former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then killed himself in December of 2012, had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This problem isn't going away. It might be too late for many who are playing now or whose playing days are over, but that doesn't mean we can't make things better for the future. We have to do this. We always hear claims that paying players could "destroy" college football, but this is a much bigger threat to the game. These are people's lives we're talking about. These aren't commodities to use up and throw in the trash when we're done with them.
Instead we get a press conference in which officials lie to protect themselves, don't know what's going on, or a little bit of both. Brandon is trying to distance himself from Hoke with this “one if by land, two if by sea lantern” of a late night statement, and I guess from a business perspective it's smart, but it reeks of desperation. If Brandon is trying to bury Hoke by pouring buckets from his own leaky boat into Hoke's even leakier boat, it's not a good look.
Am I off base here, Lindsay? What do you think the appropriate response to this situation should have been? Aside from the on-field results, should Hoke (and other coaches in the future) be penalized for putting players at risk? And what is Brandon's role in this? What is a reasonable expectation for an athletic director in something like this?
Lindsay Schnell: It’s baffling to me that it’s 2014 and we’re having this conversation. How many more documentaries do we need to watch, how many more books do we need to read, how many more autopsies do we need to see before we understand, as a society, that head trauma is real and lasting? Should Hoke be penalized for putting a player at risk? Hell yes.
To be clear, I think it's pretty much guaranteed that Hoke will lose his job at some point this season. This incident isn’t going to be the tipping point -- if it were, he would have already been let go -- but it certainly shoots to the top of the “did wrong” list. If he’s not going to be fired, then he should be suspended one game because it is unacceptable for him to be that out of the loop about the program he runs. I find it hard to believe that NO ONE saw what happened Saturday. Do you know how many people are on a football staff?
I’m not going to accuse a coach of knowingly putting a player in danger, but I will say this: People in charge do some desperate things when they think they’re close to losing their jobs. As for Brandon’s role, it’s his athletic department, and the buck stops with him. If he’s going to take responsibility, ultimately, then he needs to hold a press conference and allow questions, not email out a few paragraphs long after most people have gone to sleep. That’s a coward’s way out.
The lack of communication in Ann Arbor is astounding, as is the poor crisis management. Brandon said Hoke wasn’t given an updated diagnosis before speaking with the media Monday, but he didn't give any reason why. Coaches get text messages, tweets, phone calls and in-person updates about every moving part of their program, but no one could walk into Hoke’s office and offer him the latest news on his quarterback? He couldn’t walk into someone else’s office? Brandon also didn’t explain why Hoke had said we would hear from the medical staff, and instead got a statement from the AD. I knew there were problems at Michigan, but this is revealing a new level of defectiveness.
I watched a few games Saturday in the presence of my friend’s young son. In true 3-year-old wisdom, he watched one play and observed, “They do some crazy falls … and why do they always crash into each other?” I tried to explain that they’re supposed to do that, but he got more confused. Maybe I’m a bad teacher. Or maybe this game has reached a point where there are no good explanations for some of the barbaric activity that’s condoned, and celebrated.
The next questions should go to Shane Morris’ parents: What did they see? What explanation were they given? Are they satisfied? Do they believe everything Hoke & Co. are saying publicly?
Andy, you’re a parent. If this were your kid, what would you want to know -- and would you have any confidence in Hoke the next time your son ran onto the field?
Staples: I'm a parent, and that part of me would want to know every step in the chain that allowed my son to be sent back into the game with a possible concussion. Lindsay mentioned suspending Hoke, but what about the trainer? He bears more immediate responsibility than Hoke in that situation. The head coach has a lot more going on. The trainer's job is to ascertain quickly whether the players are healthy enough to play. As a parent, I would want to know every step that program was taking to ensure that something like what happened to Morris never got missed again.
I'm also someone who played football growing up, and this issue is almost always more complicated for those of us who played than for those who didn't. People who didn't play can't fathom why anyone would put their brain in jeopardy, but it's really not that simple. This is especially true because the general public wasn't aware of how much potential danger existed until about five years ago.
I'm pretty sure I know when I got my first concussion playing football. I was in 10th grade, and I played on my school's jayvee team. We were doing a (since outlawed) drill called Bull in the Ring. The team forms a giant circle about 20 yards in diameter, and each player takes a turn in the middle. The coach calls out a number, and the player with the corresponding number charges the player in the middle. It's actually a very effective drill to train for blocking on kickoff returns and punt returns because the player in the middle has to block a player with a 10-yard running start.
That particular day, I was feeling my oats. When my turn came in the middle, I handled the first few players the coach sent at me. Then he sent a little safety, which just felt insulting. I sent the kid flying and yelled "Come on!" at the coach while making that "bring it on" motion with my arms. The coach started sending players more frequently -- all guys my size or bigger. I fended off the first two, but the third one creamed me. I saw stars, went black for half a second and wound up on my knees. I ripped off my chinstrap and puked through my facemask.
The coach immediately took me out of the drill and told me I didn't need to do any more at practice that day. None of the current protocols existed, but he didn't want me doing any more damage. Still, I just wanted to play. He was the defensive coordinator, and I was an offensive lineman, so I snuck back into the offensive team period later in practice.
That whole scene sounds pretty barbaric, right? I loved it. My teammates and I laughed about it that day. None of us would have even considered sitting out. Now, an injury like that would get me sidelined for at least a week. I can understand exactly how players feel when they keep quiet about getting hit in the head. Most players in Morris' situation would tell the trainer to tape the ankle tighter and conveniently leave out anything about the head shot.
Maybe after another five years, we'll have a generation of players who grew up with a healthy fear of head injuries, and they'll be brave enough to alert their coaches and trainers when something might be wrong. Until then, it's up to the coaching and medical staffs to pay attention and make sure players get checked when they take a shot to the head.
At a program the size of Michigan's, there is no excuse for both the coaching and medical staffs to miss that hit. Martin, beyond the eye in the sky trainer, is there anything else you'd suggest to help monitor this?
Rickman: I'm not in a position of power, but there are a few things I'd probably consider. First it has to start at the macro level. We need some sort of universal code to these things. In Major League Baseball, it's not perfect, but if you're found to have a concussion, there are strict steps to follow before you can return to play, and there's the option for the seven-day concussion DL. It seems simple and almost intuitive, yet there’s nothing organized like that in college. Protocols need to be consistent and constantly reevaluated and used across the board, not just when it seems prudent.
And money needs to be continually poured into research. Some of these schools are already doing this sort of work at their medical centers. Cooperate more. Maybe take volunteers on the team who participate. Maybe everyone is mandated to. These kids already have social media rules and study hours and meetings and all this other stuff in the way. An hour a week or a month might seem like too much, but it could make a huge difference. If we're studying the guys when their brains aren't done developing, we might be able to identify the cause.
Finally we've got to get the technology up to date. Concussion monitoring devices aren't where we need them to be yet, but they're a start. There's no reason along with the new helmets that we can't start to test that more frequently and widespread. It all comes back to the brain itself. You can mend a broken bone. You can repair an ACL tear. What can we do about the brain if the damage is done? We don't have all the answers, but that can't be an excuse. We have to keep trying and keep working until we make progress.
Andy's point is a good one. If you've played, it's a lot harder to separate the "I'd never let my kid play this barbaric sport" from the good memories you have of your time playing. You learn so much from team sports, and even though I had to quit football earlier than I wanted to from concussions and concussion-related symptoms that may or may not have contributed to a myriad of problems including depression, insomnia, hallucinations and personality disorder I continue to deal with today, I don't regret playing. I loved the game. I still love the game. That's what makes this so hard when the lines are blurred.
Lindsay, in your experience, do coaches really care? Is it just a matter of them existing in multiple planes of existence -- the old school and the new school of football? It can't be easy for them to have everything they were taught about dealing with injuries be pulled out from under them. I know these guys are already going to seminars and clinics. Should there be medical experts there more often and does it come down to better education?
Schnell: Call me naive if you want, but I choose to believe that (almost) everyone in this business is in it for the right reasons, and that coaches DO care. So do assistants, administrators, trainers and on down the line. What's tough is that until it happens to you, or your team or your kid, it feels far away and possibly like something that's not "real."
I agree that the responsibility does not fall on the player. Yes, it would be great if an injured athlete 'fessed up without prodding, but 18-22 year olds are not known for being the best decision makers, even before they suffer a brain injury. We shouldn't hold that against them.
Education for players is key, of course, but you can't make a kid really listen. That's why this falls on the shoulders of the adults. As for concussion protocols, they do exist -- I know when I covered Oregon State there were strict rules in place for all the steps a player who experienced "concussion-like symptoms" had to go through before being cleared to play again. However, Martin makes a good point that there needs to be some sort of uniform, college football-wide protocol that everyone understands. Andy’s also right that it's the job of a trainer to quickly diagnose an injury. If the trainer isn't sure, they should err on the side of caution and sit the player. There's a reason moms everywhere like to tell their kids, "You're better safe than sorry."
I have a former co-worker who played receiver in college, and now makes his living covering college football. He loves the game more than anyone I've ever talked to. He's obsessed. In his free time, he coaches a semi-pro team. And he told me two years ago that he had pretty much decided his young son would not be playing fooball. "Too dangerous," he said. As we continue to educate both coaches and the general public about the after effects of football, I keep wondering if more parents are going to make a similar decision.
As I said earlier, this issue alone isn’t going to get Hoke fired. He’ll live to coach another day. This conversation, however, isn't going away -- and it shouldn't.