Football is changing. Gone, slowly, are the days when a player could get caught engaging in criminal acts on the weekend and run bleachers instead of facing prosecution. Another practice that's hopefully exiting the game is the practice of team doctors bending to the will of coaches when it comes to injury decisions.
This week former TCU receiver Kolby Listenbee filed suit against TCU, Gary Patterson, the Big 12, and a host of coaches and support staff, including several doctors and trainers, accusing the University, et al, of gross negligence, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, in their handling of his injuries.
The suit also claims that the university engaged in a "systematic pattern of misconduct" when it comes to handling injuries. To bolster the claim Listenbee's lawyers shared the experiences of several other players, all of whom played for Patterson, and all of whom claim that staff and the University mishandled injuries and treatment.
Each of the accounts, including Listenbee's run a similar narrative pattern, the players suffered injuries, either on the field or off the field, and staff ignored those injuries, coaches overruled the opinions of medical staff, and pressured players to play before they were healthy. The injuries range from concussions to PTSD to pelvic injuries.
Here's a summary of each allegation:
- In 2002, Lonta Hobbs, a TCU running back, suffered a concussion in an offseason car accident. As a result, Hobbs suffered PTSD. Coaches persuaded Hobbs to return to Fort Worth but Psychiatric care nor counseling was made available to him, and Hobbs fell into emotional instability. Coaches, in spite of Hobbs condition, warned him that if he didn't return to the field, he would lose his job.
- In 2010 TCU running back Ed Wesley suffered a concussion against rival SMU. Team doctor Sam Haraldson refused to allow Wesley to return to the game due to his injury. Patterson berated Harldson in an exchange captured on national TV claiming that Wesley was fine and should be cleared to return to the game.
- David Johnson tore his ACL in the spring of 2012 requiring surgery and repair via either a graft from Johnson's tissue or that of a cadaver. Doctors informed Johnson that that graft from the cadaver would be more stable and stronger, but would require nine months recovery instead of six. Johnson claims Patterson told him that if he chose the longer recovery time, he would lose his scholarship. Johnson opted for the less stable procedure, and doctors cleared him to return to practice in five months rather than six in spite of the continued pain. Johnson tore the ACL in the ninth game of the 2012 season, and after undergoing a second surgery, the pain persisted, prompting medical staff to administer corticosteroid injections. After Johnson returned to practice in 2013, he felt his knee "shift" during practice and removed himself from drills. Patterson confronted Johnson about his decision and called him into his office later that day. Two days later Paterson removed Johnson from the roster and informed him he was no longer welcome on the team.
- TCU defensive lineman Stansly Maponga was deciding whether to declare for the NFL draft or return to TCU. Patterson, in a team meeting, announced that if Maponga chose the NFL, he would not be allowed back on the University's campus to finish his degree or workout before the draft and that Patterson would inform NFL scouts that Maponga's work ethic was poor and he was "soft."
- In 2013 TCU receiver Cameron White suffered a concussion in a game but medical staff, after consulting with Paterson and other coaches, cleared White to return to the game. Medical staff informed White that, should he suffer another concussion, he would be medically disqualified from playing. White suffered an MCL injury in a game against Iowa State. After the game, medical staff injected him with an unknown substance, and for the remaining ten games, medical staff injected White with the same substance without consultation, information on long-term effects via informed consent. Due to pain, White requested an MRI, but medical staff informed him that such a procedure wasn't necessary to clear him to return to play.
Listenbee's injury occurred in 2013 and involved a condition known as Osteitis Pubis or inflammation of the pubic area and surrounding muscles.
Listenbee rehabbed the injury for several weeks, missing games; however, the injury persisted. Ultimately, TCU coaches including Patterson, offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, and other coaches "cleared" Listenbee to return to practice, in spite of the continued pain. To deal with the pain, medical staff administered local anesthetics and corticosteroids, at times before and then during games, to numb the injured area. In TCU's bowl game that season, against Oregon, Listenbee received an injection, however, the procedure penetrated his femoral artery causing temporary paralysis.
All the while, week to week, coaches pressured Listenbee to continue to play. He was threatened, belittled, and admonished in front of the entire team for "faking" his injury. According to Listenbee, Patterson even threatened that if TCU lost to Texas, he would kick Listenbee of the team and out of the University. Patterson threatened to tell NFL scouts that Listenbee was faking the injury and even mentioned to the press that TCU was better off without the receiver.
In the meantime, the anesthetics and corticosteroids deteriorated the muscles and tissue around the injury. The damage, according to Listenbee, cut short his NFL career. (The Buffalo Bills drafted Listenbee in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL draft. However, Listenbee never played for the Bills after the team placed him on the Physically Unable to Perform or "PUP" list.)
Whether the allegations are true, the implications are clear, that Gary Patterson and the TCU staff engaged in conduct that almost every program in America participates in, pressuring injured players to return to the field sooner than later and in doing so, threatening players and overriding medical recommendations.
In the old days, especially at smaller schools, medical staff weren't even present during practices. Coaches and student trainers handled injuries. The medical treatment coaches defaulted was to "shake the cobwebs out" or "walk it off." Dennis Franchione, while at Texas A&M, famously gave injured players practice jerseys with giant red crosses on the front, and required them to practice on a different field than "healthy" players. The message was clear; you aren't part of the team if you're injured. Other coaches required injured players to eat apart from the team or take different team buses to and from games to isolate and shame players.
Former Illinois head coach and full-time asshole Tim Beckman pressured injured players to give up their scholarships. Illinois players were not allowed to seek independent medical opinions and some, like former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic, were denied routine procedures like MRIs for months while playing through unknown injuries.
With the understanding of CTE and concussion-related injuries, the game is progressing, slowly. The NFL, in its last collective bargaining agreement, demanded that independent medical staff (unaffiliated neurological consultant ["UNC"]) examine players as part of the concussion protocol. The idea being that medical staff employed by teams were prone to divided loyalties and suggestibility or out and out threats by coaches or other staff.
College football is slower to adjust. Remember back to the Red River Shootout this past October when Sam Ehlinger's head slammed the Cotton Bowl turf as he fell out of bounds. Ehlinger went into "concussion protocol" under the medical tent, only to emerge a few seconds later and demand to return to the game. He finished the game, throwing a critical fourth-down pass away into the sideline, and the next week Tom Herman announced that Ehlinger was in "concussion protocol," and held out of practice.
The NHL pioneered "concussion protocol" by instituting a mandatory trip to a medical examiner for testing in a "distraction-free environment" as well as independent observers to identify players that may require evaluation. In football, concussion protocols vary from program to program, but often involve a simple, cursory trip under the medical tent, often for just seconds, where medical staff allegedly perform a battery of tests. The tests often aren't performed, evidenced by the brief time spent "under evaluation."
Many coaches take a paradoxical view of players: they are too valuable to miss significant time on the field, but not valuable enough to undergo the required medical examination to ensure long-term health.
Diagnosis and treatment of other injuries are even less regulated. Often diagnostic procedures like MRIs are not made available to players. In the "heat of battle" coaches are the ultimate decision maker of whether a player is healthy enough to return to gameplay or practice. In spite of whatever public assurance otherwise, players understand that if they go against a coaches directive when it comes to health and safety, they can and will be dismissed from the program and lose their scholarship.
Until the NCAA steps in and creates defined policies, and more importantly, punishments for undermining those policies, Listenbee's situation will repeat itself. College players, like their professional counterparts, should have independent medical personnel available to them for their protection both from unscrupulous acts by other parties and to protect players from themselves.
Independent measures should not only be allowed on game day but also made available during critical rest and recovery. College coaches, of course, won't let this happen. Imagine Nick Saban allowing a non-staff doctor on his sideline to ensure player safety; we can't either. But until coaches quit playing God with player health, independent oversite is essential.