Saving College Football

The lawyers are coming. We can't stop them. Even now they're circling around the NCAA, they'll start with these licensing agreements but they won't stop. They've seen what suing the NFL got a class of plaintiffs with chronic injuries, $765 million reasons to stay interested in football and head injuries. They'll come for the NCAA soon enough.

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Head injuries, that deep dark developing secret has everyone spooked and justifiably so. The research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy  or CTE is startling. Either every football player tested, save a few, shares a similar set of genetic or physiological traits or the reason that all but one of the former player brains studied by Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has shown signs of CTE is related to football.

This is also the reason that the NCAA and the NFL have made some radical changes to playing rules and medical protocols. Why else do NCAA officials credit a 50% drop in concussions on kickoffs to moving kickoffs up and more touch backs. A move that essentially says playing less football is better. Then there are the targeting rules that seek to protect unprotected players. Again acknowledging that even with state of the art helmets and pads players are as vulnerable as on the field as they could be in traffic.

The medical shift has been more pronounced. Ready for a sentence that starts with "when I played?" Here it goes: When I played you got your bell wrung or you had to shake the cobwebs off or shake it off. To be honest we never even thought about concussions. Those were for car wrecks. Real men didn't get concussions. If you had a head ache you weren't hydrated enough, you had eaten too much sugar or worse you lacked toughness. Now every medical training staff at the collegiate level has a protocol. Every NFL staff does as well.  This is like going from leaches to antibiotics in the course of two decades.

The NCAA and NFL are in survival mode, not for the current generation but the next. A generational show cause trial that the game is either safe or getting that way. There are soccer moms and dads across the country who are more concerned than ever that football has been asleep at the wheel, promoting the game's violence but undercutting its ultimately tragic results. The dinosaurs will scream to let them play but they aren't tuning into the seismic shifts that the powers that be are actually undertaking to save the game. More are coming. If you hate the targeting rule you probably won't like the rest. But changes are necessary because if there's one thing the NCAA knows it's the trickle down effect of the NFL. The NCAA has seen unprecedented growth in the wake of unprecedented NFL popularity, money followed too. Now the NCAA has seen big brother get staggered a bit by a group of researchers in Boston and Palo Alto. They know how scary this could all get.

Let's talk damage control or rather what can the NCAA do to protect its greatest asset from being toppled by a wave of head injuries, lawsuits, and fear.  

Be Proactive

Perhaps the best advice for both the NCAA and the NFL is to get out in front of the wave that is coming. This will take equal parts backpedaling and rigorous paddling but its doable and you don't have to admit that football is a cause of CTE, yet. You can still hide behind the lack of research to find a comfortable place to sit for awhile, and find a plan B. But at some point the research will grow and if the trend continues you'll look as silly saying that matches don't lead to fires as you would that football has nothing to do with CTE. Now is the time to get out in front. Help fund better helmets, studies into other preventative measures, education, and yes, even cut a check to one of the brain labs. That's what the NFL did.

Set Universal, Objective Protocols

Put non-affiliated medical teams on every sideline for every game. Don't rely on the team doctor, we know they are far too often influenced by the ultimate goal of getting Johnny "back out there" as soon as possible. Call these medical personnel medical officials and give them access to the sidelines and players to make determinations on a player's injuries. Have spotters watching from the press box or television feeds that can pick out players who may need attention. 

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During the 2011 season, Colt McCoy took a vicious helmet to helmet hit from James Harrison. He was knocked unconscious briefly, attended to by Cleveland training staff, sat out two plays, and then reentered the game. Browns' coach Pat Shurmur said after the game that McCoy was "fine to go back in." However, some wonder whether concussion protocols were followed to determine whether McCoy was showing any symptoms of a head injury. For McCoy he can't remember the hit. Was Colt McCoy concussed? Probably. Could someone have cleared him to play the game without a thorough assessment? Absolutely. That's why football at every level needs an objective medical decision maker to go through the analysis. Someone who isn't paid by the university or team.

Shorten Things Up

Games are too long and now involve too many plays, adopt NFL timing rules, get the time of game down to a tidy 3 hours instead of 4+. This will also help you at the box office. Yes, by the way, even the big bad SEC is losing game-day fans, cutting down on the time sweating in the bleachers may help lure some back. It will also cut down on plays or opportunities for injury. That was your whole motive on kick-offs remember. Apply it across the board. Run the clock after first downs, heck even run it after they go out of bounds until the last 5 minutes of each half. 

While you're at it limit contact in practices. The Pac 12 is the only conference that currently does so. Well, the Pac 12 and the NFL, but what do they know. Less contact means less potential for injury.  The Pac 12 took the step, and a fair amount of heat, for limiting contact opportunities, but it's a move that is designed to protect the games most valuable asset - not the game itself, the players. The NCAA needs to take this step across the board.

Educate

This should come easy for a bunch of academic institutions: teach the game differently. Watch old training films, before helmets became battering rams, and see how tackling was taught shoulder to center mass, not facemask to chest. This change is already happening in some instances, but this technique should be more widespread. Now this alone won't help the forehead trauma that lineman face, but it will help mitigate other hits. Another component of education is teaching players, coaches, and trainers to objectively spot signs of head injuries, technology can help with this endeavor.

Virginia Tech currently uses censors to measure impact. Once a player registers an impact above a certain threshold, a trainer is alerted via beeper and he can then examine the player. Now every player is different and their tolerance to contact will vary, but in an effort to get out in front of head injuries, the NCAA needs to find ways to educate and enable all parties to limit damage by recognizing damage.

Stay the Course

The targeting rule is on trial by fire every Saturday in college football. Boos reign down when a penalty is called and an ejection announced. Such was the case when A&M played 'Bama at Kyle Field. In that game Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Alabama defensive back was called for targeting and ejected. The ejection was reversed on replay and rightfully so. The interesting part came minutes later when a pass over the middle missed its mark and Clinton-Dix pulled up to miss contacting the receiver. Gary Danielson, working the booth for CBS that day, accurately pointed out that the previous targeting had stopped another perhaps more viscous and more pointless hit.

The NCAA has to retrain its players to act within the new rules. This will require taking some heat from those who will demand that the NCAA  "just let them play!" The reality is if the NCAA did just let them play the way they've been playing the consequences could be tragic for both players and the game as a whole.
Posted on October 16, 2013 and filed under Southwest Round-Up, Sports.