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SEC's new policy of medical observers will change football for the better

The SEC is following the Big Ten in a policy that will change college football: Objective observers in each press box will monitor players who may have suffered head injuries, and act accordingly.

DESTIN, Fla.—Before they wasted minutes they’ll never get back Tuesday answering questions about satellite camps—the subject of the dumbest argument in the long and storied history of dumb college football rules arguments—outgoing SEC commissioner Mike Slive and incoming SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced something far more interesting and important. Neither this new SEC policy nor the similar Big Ten one that passed in December drew much more than a few nods and scribbles, but come September, they could be the most talked-about new rules in college football.

Beginning this season, the SEC and Big Ten will have observers affiliated with neither team in each press box watching for players who appear to have suffered head injuries. “It will be someone that the conference puts there, not the institution,” Slive said. “It will give us another check if, on the field, a team doesn’t see that a player sustained a head injury.” Those observers, who will either be physicians or certified athletic trainers, will have open lines of communication to the teams’ sidelines. They’ll also have the ability to alert the officiating crew. If the player with the apparent head injury looks like he’s staying on the field for the next play, the observer can use the replay official’s equipment to alert the referee, who will then stop play until the player is taken off the field to be evaluated. Even if the player is OK, he must miss the next play or his coach must call timeout to get him back on the field.

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This is all perfectly reasonable. No one wants players with concussions remaining in games. Concussion research has shown that players are most susceptible to long-term damage when they suffer a second concussion before fully recovering from a first concussion. But one athletic director pointed out a situation Wednesday that could cause folks to forget the noble intention of the policy. “Just wait until it’s third-and-8 in the fourth quarter of a tight game and they take the quarterback off the field,” the AD said.

[ football]Just as fans occasionally forget the reason behind the targeting penalty when it gets one of their team’s players tossed from the game, there will be cries of conspiracy and unfairness if a key player gets removed from a close game. This is a natural response, but just like the targeting penalty, everyone needs to understand this policy exists to help the game survive. To have football of any kind in 25 years, parents of future players need to be convinced the people in charge of football are committed to making the game safer. This is yet another one of those necessary steps. It could seriously affect games, and that will seem strange at first. But we’ll all have to get used to it.

It may be a sign of how critical this issue is to the future of the game that SEC coaches—the freakiest of control freaks—offered no resistance to the policy. “None of our coaches had a problem with that,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. It probably helped that when presenting the policy, SEC officials showed footage of Michigan quarterback Shane Morris taking a vicious shot to the head against Minnesota last season and staying in the game. Morris was in obvious distress, but he waved off help from the sideline. Later, then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke would say no one on the sideline or in the coaches’ booth realized Morris might have suffered a head injury.

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The Big Ten and SEC took this step to ensure that never happens again. The NFL, following a woozy Julian Edelman’s continued play in the Super Bowl, also passed a policy that will include observers and a “medical timeout” that will perform a similar function to the SEC and Big Ten policies. Presumably, under the new Big Ten policy, an observer in the press box at Michigan Stadium would have buzzed the official to ensure the next snap didn’t take place with Morris on the field. “I don’t see some of those things,” Freeze said. “But if that’s [the observer’s] sole job, you would think he would get something like that.” Said LSU coach Les Miles: “It basically is going to protect from a mistake.”

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Most coaches seem to have a clear understanding of just how critical this issue is to the game, so even if they are worried about a player being taken off the field by someone from outside their program, they aren’t complaining about it. At this point, they know leaving a compromised player in the game would be far worse for them than losing because the observer yanked someone off the field. “The communication you have with your medical staff now is really just one-sided,” Freeze said. “It’s you listening. You cannot afford to act like you have the authority on whether a kid is able to perform without putting himself at risk.”

In fact, the Big 12 put that sentiment in writing this off-season, giving medical personnel complete authority over whether a player can return to the field. The Big 12 policy did not add an observer, but it did go farther than the NCAA concussion policy by adding that section. One of the people who argued the most passionately for codifying the medical staff’s authority was Oklahoma center Ty Darlington, whose younger brother Zack suffered a horrific concussion during a nationally televised game as a senior at Apopka (Fla.) High. (Zack Darlington currently is a redshirt freshman at Nebraska.) While the SEC has no such written policy, Miles said the medical staff has final say in his program. “That trainer is going to tell me when I have him and when I don’t,” Miles said.

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Football will have to continue to make adjustments as doctors learn more about the long-term effects of head injuries, but the people in charge of the game at the college level are trying to find ways to make it safer. The policies adopted by the Big Ten and SEC probably will become the norm rather than the exception, and that should ultimately help make a safer game.

Come this fall, if a conference observer pulls the star defensive end from your favorite team off the field, it might be strange. It might be maddening, especially if the player isn’t actually hurt. But just remember that this rule exists for the long-term health of that player and for the long-term health of the game itself.