The growing national focus and scrutiny on the effects of concussions on former players isn’t causing Georgia football coach Mark Richt to have more concerns as a father, he says.
Richt’s son Jon is a rising redshirt senior quarterback at Mars Hill College in North Carolina, which plays on the NCAA Division II level.
“It’s just like my son Zach,” Richt said of the 16-year-old. “He likes to climb trees and jump from this to that. He may break his arm. He may hit his head, too, God forbid. But you know, if that’s in his blood and that’s his passion and he understands the deal, then I want him to be able to play if he wants to play.”
As preseason football practices beckon just weeks away, there is a heightened awareness of the issue of concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
The Southeastern Conference is appointing a working group that will review available research, evaluate diagnoses and guidelines and look at standards of practice before bringing recommendations to the league for further consideration.
“We think this is timely, we think it’s important and we are urging fast progress by this working group,” Florida president Bernie Machen said earlier this month in Destin, Fla., when the league’s spring meetings concluded.
The University of Georgia Athletic Association’s Sports Medicine Department recently held a conference that featured a symposium on the management of sports-related concussions.
“There’s a lot of interest, a lot of demand,” Ron Courson, Georgia’s assistant athletic director of sports medicine, said of those who work with youth sports and high schools. “That’s the one area we probably get more questions from the community about when people call in than any other injury that we see.”
New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott told the New York Daily News that he did not want his 7-year-old to play football. “With what is going on, I don’t know if it’s really worth it,” he said.
Former Georgia cornerback Asher Allen retired May 30 at age 24 from the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. The team didn’t say why he abruptly left the game, but he had at least two concussions in three NFL seasons.
Lindsey Scott, the former Georgia receiver, is among more than 100 plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed May 3 in federal court claiming the NFL didn’t protect their players
from brain injuries related to football-related concussions. The Associated Press reports that more than 2,138 players are plaintiffs in 81 lawsuits claiming the NFL did not do enough to inform them about dangerous head injuries.
“I think it’s definitely something we have to take a look at,” Courson said. “Things go in cycles.”
Courson referenced a book that former Georgia football coach Vince Dooley gave him called “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” detailing rule changes that Roosevelt pushed for to improve safety when others wanted the sport banned.
“It was a common occurrence to have eight, 10, 12 kids a year die in the early 1900s playing college football,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told the AP. “The NCAA was formed in part to say, ‘We can’t have that.’ And today if we had anything like that happen, we’d go appropriately berserk.”
There was speculation that concussions may have played a role in the death of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on May 2. Seau never reported a concussion, according to USA Today, but experienced sleep disorders, which are common in people with traumatic brain injury.
“I really don’t know all the reasons,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who coached Seau for the Miami Dolphins in 2005. “Nobody does.”
Seau’s death followed the suicide of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson in 2011.
Courson called concussions “probably the biggest issue we have in sports medicine today. … Whether you’re talking about college or little league, it’s an issue.”
There are two league rule changes this year in college football designed to reduce head injuries. Kickoffs have been moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 in an effort to increase touchbacks and reduce concussions on returns. Touchbacks will now place the ball at the 25-yard line. If a player’s helmet pops off, the player has to leave the game for a play and have the helmet adjusted.
“It also gives the medical staff a chance to look at them,” Courson said. “If they’re hit hard enough where the helmet comes off their head, they need to be reevaluated on the sideline.”
If a player continues to play with a helmet off, it’s a 15-yard personal foul.
There could be more safety measures taken ahead.
The Ivy League last year began restricting its teams to two full-contact practices a week, which is less than the NCAA permits.
Saban said he’s heard there’s talk in the NFL of considering no facemasks to avoid head contact.
“I think that would certainly do it, but I also think there would be a lot of nose surgery going on,” Saban said. “I’m all for whatever it takes to create the safest circumstance for players to play the game. I think football is a great team game, probably the greatest team game that there is. I certainly would not want anything we’re doing as coaches or teachers or even the integrity of the game to affect somebody’s future ability to function in a normal manner.
“At the same time, I hope that the things that are out there right now, there’s enough scientific evidence to make sure that we’re not creating something that maybe we don’t overreact.”
Of future safety measures, Courson said: “I think it’s something that needs to be studied. We only have one brain, so we want to take the best care of it that we can.”
The SEC is studying the issues with the working group headed by Mississippi chancellor Dan Jones, a physician who was dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The Big Ten also is researching head injuries through its academic consortium.
The SEC group will include two specialists who are experts in head trauma, two team doctors and two athletic trainers — all from league schools.
“What we see it leading to is, we want to make sure we are doing everything we can possibly do to protect our student-athletes,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said.
Policy in works
A uniform concussion policy may eventually come out of the working group.
“We’re focused on our own league and the injuries that we see and the concern that our member institutions have over these concussion-related issues,” Machen said. “It’s time for us to step up and see what we can do together to deal with this issue.”
Georgia had nine concussions from football players in the fall and spring combined — seven were on the field, one (receiver Rantavious Wooten) was from a car accident and the other was from a motor scooter accident.
Five of the concussions were identified when they happened, but four of them were presented to medical staff when players said they had concussion-like symptoms, such as headache, nausea and dizziness. Athletes are educated on concussions at the beginning of each school year.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 as a quarterback at Florida, said he only had one “slight” concussion his junior season but continued to play in the game, something that is unlikely to happen these days.
“The doctors, trainers do a super job,” Spurrier said. “If you have any type of concussion, you will not play the next week. They usually make them sit out a couple of weeks before they’re cleared to play. Sometimes they sit out three weeks.”
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he could see a reduction in kids playing youth league football, but doesn’t see the popularity of high school football waning.
“More kids get hurt riding a bike with head injuries than playing football, but I still let my son ride his little tricycle around, too,” Mullen said. “All of those worries — and parents are always worried about that stuff — I think we spend a lot of time in our league and I know the NFL does — of trying to keep the game as safe as possible.”
Concussions are a serious issue also in women’s soccer, Courson said, and the highest rate is in cheerleading.
“There’s a lot of interest in it and there’s a lot of great intentions from everybody across the board from medical staffs to coaches and the commissioners to keep the game as safe as we can,” Courson said. “It’s a great game, but we want to encourage safety.”