College football players across the country have reported for fall practice and are eagerly preparing for the upcoming 2013 football season.
The vast majority of them arrived on campus assuming the NCAA has their backs when it comes to safety and health issues. However, if they make that assumption, they're wrong -- especially when it comes to the most devastating injury of all, a brain concussion.
In the world of big-time sports, the NCAA brings up the rear when it comes to brain trauma policy. Yes, even behind the National Football League. The NFL has received a lot of heat in recent years for how it has handled concussions -- most of it well deserved -- but the NFL's current policy in this area is superior to the laissez-faire approach of the NCAA.
Despite all the research during the past decade on brain damage from concussions in sports -- particularly in football -- the NCAA does not yet have a comprehensive policy on the issue for its member schools, only "general guidelines." Those overarching recommendations weren't even developed until 2010, well after the serious long-term effects of concussions were known.
The NCAA Compliance Manual states that member schools should (a) inform athletes about the signs and symptoms of concussions; (b) remove athletes who show signs of a concussion from play; and (c) prohibit students from returning to play the same day they were initially injured.
That's it. The manual doesn't mention limits on contact in practice. No guidelines on detecting and screening brain injuries. No comprehensive return-to-play policy for athletes suffering from brain trauma. And, most importantly, there are no consequences if a member school fails to come up with a plan and enforce it. It amounts to just partial exhortations.
In effect, the NCAA has delegated the concussion issue to schools as a strategy to avoid any legal liability and potential financial losses -- all at the expense of their student-athletes' health and safety. Meanwhile, the NCAA continues to rake in billions of dollars from television and other sources through its revenue-at-all-costs policies.
"The NCAA's concussion management plan really only says that every member school has to have its own concussion management plan," says Chicago lawyer Joseph Siprut, who filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA claiming negligence in the area of brain trauma. "In practice, that's led to complete disaster. A lot of schools simply don't do a good job of addressing the issue. There's no consistency. If there were more effective measures in place, it would certainly help student-athletes. Failure to do so is negligence."
It's also callous barbarism.
The NCAA's lack of leadership in this area is especially troubling because college athletes lack meaningful representation. They don't have a union to fight for their best interests. They are at the mercy of the NCAA and the big-time business of college sports.
In short, the NCAA has failed to adequately educate and protect college athletes. This avoidance behavior is unforgivable given the fact that athlete safety was the primary reason the organization was formed. In the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt convened two conferences at the White House with college presidents to discuss the growing number of gruesome injuries and deaths occurring in college football. Those conferences resulted in the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) in 1906, which led to several safety-related policies and rules. (The IAAUS would later become the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1910.)
Now, over a century later, it appears we might once again need a presidential or congressional intervention to ensure the safety and health of unprotected college football players.
To avoid an unnecessary political intervention, the NCAA must do what it was formed to do: protect college athletes. It should implement and enforce strict return-to-play standards for players suspected of having concussions or brain trauma of any kind. It should also limit contact during practices, require independent concussion specialists to be present during games, and educate student-athletes in contact sports about the degenerative brain conditions associated with those sports.
That's what an education-based organization that cares about the well-being of the young people under its purview would do.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.