BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- We've heard the stories and seen the lawsuits from ex-NFL players on how concussions impact some of their minds when the cheering stops.
But a gnawing question too few people have asked is how head trauma affects ex-college players who never reach the NFL. College football so far has avoided the public backlash the NFL received.
It needs to be asked: What could happen after the band stops playing? What might the brain look like after three to five years of crashing into another college player on top of countless hits in youth and high school football?
If a new SEC working group studying concussions in all of its sports can help answer that question, college sports will be better off. That doesn't mean kill college football. It means better understanding the risks and trying to prevent them.
Jon Solomon is a columnist for The Birmingham News. Join him for live web chats on college sports on Wednesdays at 2 p.m."There's been less focus on college players who don't go on to play professional sports, but I think you'll see that getting more attention and go down to people who play it at every level," said University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, who is heading the SEC concussion group. "From time to time we have all had concerns of what we ask student-athletes to do and what the long-term health may be."
The Big Ten announced an initiative last month to study head injuries through its academic consortium. The SEC followed last week by saying it will study concussions on a panel that includes two head-trauma specialists and two team doctors affiliated with SEC schools. Jones said it would be smart for the SEC to collaborate with the Big Ten and expects several conferences to build on each other's work.
Many details of the SEC's planned studies aren't clear yet. Jones said the SEC wants to be fully informed on the latest head-trauma research and identify best practices to manage concussions. Jones said he hasn't seen "any hint" the SEC is studying the issue to protect itself against lawsuits.
Currently, SEC schools individually use team physicians and medical experts. The SEC will discuss the possibility of standardized policies, Jones said.
Last season, the Ivy League jumped ahead of the curve by limiting full-contact football practices to twice a week, a 60 percent reduction from NCAA rules. The Ivy League is currently studying ideas to protect hockey, lacrosse and soccer players.
"I'll be interested to see if the SEC and Big Ten are considering adopting the Ivy League model," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. "The initial response to that model we've gotten from football players in our leadership is very positive."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he heard talk the NFL may do away with face masks to avoid head contact. "I think that would certainly do it," Saban said. "I also think there would be a lot of nose surgery going on."
Saban said he doesn't want to affect a player's future ability to function normally. But he cautioned that the scientific evidence needs to be available so "maybe we don't overreact."
Jones, who is a physician without experience in head trauma, said the SEC group will begin meeting this summer. A formal report is expected to be given at the SEC meetings next spring.
"I think everyone who plays football through high school and college knows there's some vulnerability and risk associated with it, just like we know (of the risk) when we get in an automobile," Jones said. "One of the things we need to make sure we do through all of this is to be sure that student-athletes and families and professional athletes have the opportunity to be completely informed of what the risks are."
Huma said studies by the SEC and Big Ten are definitely a step in the right direction since there's a lack of information on former college athletes who suffer from degenerative brain issues.
"It's appropriate since many of these colleges have medical centers and hospitals and resources," Huma said. "If you look at the contracts they've been signing for TV revenues, it is their responsibility at this point to put their best foot forward and help minimize the injuries for those who generate the revenue."
Better late than never.
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