Harvard and Boston University published a study this week regarding the reliability of individual players to report their on-field concussions or minor "dings" that take place during the course of a football game. Surprising no one, the study found that 26 of 27 dings or concussions go unreported.
When looking at the state of academics or off field conduct, I have presented the problem as a matter of accountability. It is counter intuitive to let those who stand to lose from self-governance to police themselves. On field injuries are no different. Of course the player doesn't want to report his head injury. If he pulls himself from the game after every stinger, he will find his football career cut very short. So of course he continues to play, piling up stingers and minor concussions until long term brain damage becomes inevitable.
Dan Le Batard has written an interesting piece on football, CTE and the potential fallout from brain damage. I'd suggest giving it a read in light of Harvard's study. His premise is that the repercussions of a career in football while the game is being played at this size and speed may be far more horrific than the players, or any of us, comprehend; that the repetitive impact is having an effect on the chemical make-up of the players' brains and making monsters out of them.
I couldn't have been the only one to wince when Michigan's quarterback Shane Morris took a hit to the head that has allegedly caused a concussion; or to wince even harder while observing the circus that surrounded his returning to the game. It was an uncomfortable viewing experience, which is outside the norm from how most of us consume football.
I'm not sure my reaction would have been the same 10 years ago. In fact, I'm positive the reaction would have been to applaud Morris for being a 'gamer'. I doubt the hit would have received coverage on Good Morning America or NPR either, nor do I think Head Coach Brady Hoke would be burned at the stake because of it.
Because journalists like Le Batard are asking questions of the sport of football, and because we are learning more about the potential risks of playing football, accountability is being forced upon those in charge. When Brady Hoke loses his job the Sunday after this year's annual Ohio State loss, his handling of the Morris situation will be part of the reason he's let go. Concern for player safety is now part of the job description of coaching football at any level, but particularly at big time college football. But should it be?
This study confirms the players are not going to police themselves. Equally as important, it suggests that it's not just the Morris-type hits, the plays in which the concussed stumble getting up, that cause damage. Lineman and running backs who are consistently prone to stingers, dings, and head shots on a repetitive basis are equally at risk.
And therein lies the rub. If repetitive hits, which are a part of football to its very core, is the cause of what's killing our student athletes and professional heroes, then how do we save them if they won't save themselves?
"Take off the helmets like rugby!"
I can't imagine either the NFL or the NCAA altering the rules of the game to the degree football no longer resembles football. They'll be risking too much financially in doing so. So no helmets and touch football is out. Weight limits seem to be a good starting point, but as Harvard and BU point out, it's not just NFL behemoths who are at risk. High school players who are well below this fictitious potential weigh limit are prone to concussions as well. Size isn't the only problem, the very nature of football is the problem.
No rule or special doctor on the sideline will make the sport any safer. Regardless of "the miscommunication" that took place on the sidelines, Shane Morris was still ready to get back out there and help his team win. He knows very well that the lights can go out with one hit. They all do. They still choose to play. Which is why the conversation is so complicated. If the players are choosing to take the risks, is it really fair for the coaching staff to be held accountable for what happens once they are out on the field? At the collegiate level, what responsibility for player safety falls on the shoulders of the schools? Does this change once the conversation shifts to Sundays?
Football players aren't stupid, and many understand they're making a complicated choice. Maybe the repetition of blows to the head, putting the body through a car crash on a weekly basis, is worth the education, the camaraderie, the adrenal rush of competition, and the financial reward.
However, it is the responsibility of the schools and the NCAA to make sure the players understand the choice they're making. Educating the players who put their brains on the line should be priority 1. Educating those who are tasked with looking out for the student athletes, the coaches, trainers, and staff, should be priority 1a.
Because what else can we do? Shane Morris' tweet this past week was very clear.
"I just want to play football."