FENNO: NCAA’s concussion culture rooted in denial

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In response to the document dump, an NCAA statement Saturday insisted the organization has been “at the forefront of safety issues throughout its existence.” The words would be laughable if they weren’t so disconnected from the life-and-death reality.

An internal survey released in 2010 (every member school received one; just 48 percent participated) showed 50 percent of responding schools didn’t require an athlete to see a doctor after suffering a concussion. The same percentage would return an athlete to play in the same game after being concussed. That’s what an assistant football trainer at the University of Georgia witnessed.

“I personally have seen an athlete knocked unconscious and return in the same quarter in recent years,” Dean Crowell wrote in a 2009 email to Klossner and others.

When concussion legislation was finally passed in August 2010, the 15 lines inserted into the massive rule book simply required schools to have a concussion plan on file. That’s it. The University of Oregon’s, for instance, is a page and a half. No review. No enforcement. Klossner admitted as much in an April deposition. Some schools didn’t even have a plan, he said. None have ever been investigated or disciplined.

“It would not be appropriate for enforcement to suspend or otherwise penalize a coach pursuant to the current legislation even if the student-athlete was required to participate after having been diagnosed with a concussion,” Chris Strobel, director of enforcement, wrote in an October 2010 email to Klossner.

He added that the legislation was about having the plan, not enforcing it.

This is the forefront of safety?

The internal emails worry about negative press and liability. Worry about protecting referees. Worry about not mandating policies to schools. One email from Teresa Smith, assistant director of playing rules administration, is typical, concerned about putting game officials and the NCAA at risk. The attitudes, at times, left Klossner exasperated.

“I’m at a loss,” Klossner wrote in one January 2010 email.

Another from the same month: “What an uphill task we now have.”

A document from the NCAA’s concussion summit held in April 2010 noted the organization needs “mandates in place for minimum protocol, even if it doesn’t pick up what’s going on with the kid or impact the kid’s medical outcome.”

This is the NCAA’s concussion culture. At the Final Four earlier this year, Emmert bragged that “if you’re not getting sued today you’re not doing anything.”

The president was more right than he realized.

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