Why The NCAA Does Not Care About Concussions

In college football, the risk of legal liability is dictating the response to a medical crisis.

By Eric Goldwein
December 7, 2012

In the third quarter of a 34-17 loss to Cincinnati this past Saturday, UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer took what he would later describe as a "bullet to the head." Chandler had suffered a head injury the previous week against Louisville. "We're just trying to be as careful as we can," Huskies coach Paul Pasqualoni had said after that game. But the sophomore would end up starting—and not finishing—for the second straight week.

With UConn trailing 21-10, Cincinnati's Dan Giordano leveled Whitmer, knocking the back of the quarterback's head into one of his offensive linemen. Whitmer left the field, leading the ABC announcers to note that he'd just come off a concussion and that the UConn staff was being justifiably cautious. But Whitmer was back after missing just one snap. On his second play, Whitmer lined up at wide receiver as part of a trick play. After an end-around, he took a pitch and was immediately cracked by a Cincinnati linebacker who smashed his head into the ground. The woozy Whitmer needed help getting back to the Connecticut sideline. This time, he would not return to the game.

What happened to Whitmer wasn't a mistake in NCAA concussion protocol for the simple reason that there isn't an NCAA concussion protocol. The ambiguity is by design—in order to remain legally blameless, the association can't involve itself too closely in the health of the athletes. That's why the job of devising a response to head injuries is left to the schools themselves. As a consequence, when football programs obfuscate what exactly happened to a woozy-looking quarterback, there's no one—not the local beat writer, and most certainly not an NCAA investigator—to hold them to account. In both the pros and in college football, the risk of legal liability is dictating the response to a medical crisis.

The 2012 season has been studded with examples of questionable treatment of players with potential head injuries. Two weeks ago, Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel needed to be helped off the field after taking a vicious hit to the head against Florida. Manuel returned to the game after an abbreviated medical examination, and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher later claimed farcically that Manuel had suffered an abdominal injury. In a game against Utah earlier this year, USC wide receiver Robert Woods stumbled and fell while trying to run to the sidelines after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit. Woods missed just one play. In another Pac-12 game, Arizona quarterback Matt Scott puked on the field after getting hit in the head, leading ESPN announcers Matt Millen and Joe Tessitore to plead on the air for him to be taken out. But Scott stayed in, getting pulled only after that series was complete. In the Wildcats' next game, Scott suffered another concussion. After taking a week off, the quarterback returned to action and was shown barfing on the sidelines against Utah.

When UConn, FSU, USC, and Arizona trotted out players who appeared to have been recently concussed, they might have been breaking NCAA rules. According to the 2011-12 NCAA Compliance Manual, "An active member institution shall have a concussion management plan for its student-athletes." That plan must include a "process that ensures a student-athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion shall be removed from athletics activities … and evaluated by a medical staff member" and must "[preclude] a student-athlete diagnosed with a concussion from returning to athletics activity (e.g., competition, practice, conditioning sessions) for at least the remainder of that calendar day."

It's impossible to tell if the schools were breaking the rules, though, because there's no central authority monitoring how they deal with concussions. The NCAA doesn't have a standardized concussion policy—the implementation of these general guidelines is left up to each member school. Chandler Whitmer, the UConn quarterback, did reportedly go through a series of medical evaluations prior to the Huskies' game against Cincinnati before he was cleared to play. The details of these tests and his injury remain fuzzy, however. (He would later admit to having been concussed against Louisville.) Pasqualoni avoided calling Whimer's injury a concussion, and an athletic department official declined comment when I called to ask about the school's concussion management protocol. Kansas State was similarly secretive after a November game against Texas Christian, when reports surfaced that their quarterback Collin Klein had suffered a concussion. If a coach or trainer isn't forthcoming, there's not much a reporter can do: On account of federal medical privacy laws, schools are not required to share information about player injuries.

For the NCAA, this hands-off approach to concussion protocols is a calculated legal maneuver. "The NCAA doesn't want to be seen as the entity responsible for taking care of the student-athletes," says Paul D. Anderson, the attorney who writes the NFL Concussion Litigation blog. The NCAA is currently facing a class-action suit alleging that it failed to protect athletes from the dangers of concussions. But Anderson sees that suit as an uphill battle, partly because the NCAA has delegated responsibility for student-athletes' health to its member institutions.

The NFL, by comparison, may have forfeited its ability to look the other way when it created the Mild Traumatic Brain Committee in 1994, a group that allegedly hid the link between concussions and long-term brain damage. The nearly 4,000 retired players in the class-action lawsuit against the league are hoping that makes the NFL liable.

After Congress grilled commissioner Roger Goodell for failing to acknowledge a connection between football head injuries and long-term brain damage in 2009, the NFL strengthened its concussion policies. Stars like Michael Vick and Alex Smith have been forced to miss games this year because of the NFL's mandated procedures. Teams also face financial sanctions when they violate league-wide rules. The Redskins were fined $20,000 for claiming in October that Robert Griffin III was "shaken up" before diagnosing him with a concussion. And according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the Houston Texans were questioned by the league office after quarterback Matt Schaub went down with a head injury and was not examined thoroughly enough by the team's medical staff.

At the college level, it's up to the schools to serve as their football programs' judges and juries. What will it take to get the NCAA to step in? Most likely an on-field tragedy that pushes Congress to demand answers. Until then, there will be no consistent, transparent medical policies in college football, and players like Chandler Whitmer will be at the mercy of the schools that employ them—er, that is, the schools that don't pay them to play revenue-generating sports.