published Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Wiedmer: Concussion issue could daze NCAA

Four hours and four minutes. That's how long Tennessee football fan Andrew McLain and his 3-year-old son Peyton waited in the Hyatt-Wynfrey Hotel lobby last Wednesday to collect an autograph from UT defensive end Jacques Smith during the Volunteers' turn at Southeastern Conference football media days.

Standing right beside them were 3-year-old Emily Dubose and her mother Melissa, all of them decked out in orange, Emily eventually having her picture made with Smith and Peyton earning a high-five from the former Ooltewah High School star.

Said the elder McLain of so lengthy a wait for so brief an interaction: "It was worth it. I can't wait for this season to get started. It's going to take some time, but I really think we're on the right track more than we've been in a long time. Go, Vols."

And this general scene was repeated for all 14 schools. No wonder new UT coach Butch Jones said of his first media days in the league: "When the SEC does something, it's truly special -- it's a spectacle. That's what makes the SEC what it is today, the best college football conference in the country."

With seven straight BCS national championships in the books -- and Alabama the early favorite to finish No. 1 for the fourth time in five years -- there is little doubt that the SEC again will be special.

But will the players from the 14 member schools who make it special -- as well as the rest of those poor souls across the country destined to finish SECond -- be able to clearly recall this season 20 or 30 years from now?

Or will too many hits to and near the head leave them too much like Adrian Arrington, who believes he suffered five concussions during his playing days at Eastern Illinois but was repeatedly returned to the playing field?

Arrington is involved in a lawsuit against the NCAA that claims the organization failed to take appropriate measures to protect its athletes from head trauma.

That suit, filed in 2011, was ratcheted up a notch Friday when a motion was filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago to make it a class-action suit.

Such a motion, if granted, could cost the NCAA millions, and possibly billions, of dollars should enough athletes join in. In 2011, the NCAA argued that the lawsuit had "gross misstatements," but several internal NCAA emails have suggested that the organization's concern over concussions at that time was mild at best.

According to The Associated Press, the class-action motion includes a 2010 "internal NCAA survey" that indicates "nearly half" the college trainers knowingly returned possible concussed players back in the game despite data already showing the risks of such moves. The NFL is involved in a similar suit involving more than 4,000 former players and their families.

To that end, Arrington's lawyer, Jospeh Siprut, told the AP, "If changes aren't made, the sport is going to slowly die. When the talent well dries up, that's how the sport dies."

No offense to Mr. Siprut, but it's hard to see football even slightly receding over the next 25 years. The NFL is the biggest cash cow in American sports. College football -- especially at the BCS level -- may be second.

And whatever the risks, young men who believe they have no other path to a college education -- and possibly the wealth and fame of the pros -- are going to continue to risk their mental health somewhere down the distant road to improve their financial health in the near future.

But one quote from Arrington to the Chicago Tribune earlier this year should also give every NCAA employee, university administrator, coach, parent and athlete great pause.

Said the 27-year-old who suffers from seizures, migraines and depression: "There have been situations where ... my mom says I've called her and I broke down and started crying because I'm scared. Am I going to be here for my kids? Am I going to get too depressed where I end up trying to hurt myself?"

To its credit, the NCAA is making hits to the head region a major focus of its officiating this season. As quoted by our newspaper's David Paschall in an excellent Saturday story on the issue, SEC head of football officials Steve Shaw said of the change that will suspend players for a full game for hits deemed as "targeting":

"This rule change is probably the most significant rule change in my tenure ever. It has an impact on our game and is very, very important."

It's more important that coaches, athletes and fans understand why it's very, very important -- that quality of life, if not life itself, could be at stake because of this needless violence.

Which brings us to South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, arguably the most feared player in all of college football.

Said the 2012 SEC defensive player of the year and unanimous All-American to Paschall: "I don't really like that rule. I'm 6-6. ... It's going to be hard for me to get low and not hit them above the shoulders. It's football."

As the families left behind by NFL defensive greats Junior Seau and Dave Duerson -- whose suicides have both been linked to head traumas suffered from too many head-to-head collisions -- could tell Clowney, when it comes to concussions, damage comes to both the hittee and hitter.

And if that's football, the price is too high, with or without lawsuits.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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CaptCharisma said...

Great article and thanks for the mention! We had a great time!

-Andrew McLain

July 21, 2013 at 8:23 p.m.
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