FENNO: NCAA’s concussion culture rooted in denial

The NCAA likes to talk about culture.

In a news conference last July discussing the draconian penalties against Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, president Mark Emmert used the word eight times.

“Certainly, the lesson here is one of maintaining the appropriate balance of our values,” Emmert said. “Why do we play sports in the first place, and does that culture ever get to a point where it overwhelms the values of the academy, those things that we all hold dear?”

The finger-wagging president should heed his own advice.

The 1,000-plus pages of internal NCAA emails and documents filed in federal court Friday as part of a lawsuit challenging how it handles head injuries reveal the group’s rotted, self-absorbed culture. This is an organization, after all, founded in 1905 to protect the safety of college athletes. Email after eye-opening email, however, reveals a bureaucratic wasteland that’s strayed far from the original mission.

Start with the brutal email sent by a Division III football player named Rickey Hamilton Jr. to David Klossner, the NCAA’s director of health and safety, in April 2008. Hamilton, who played for MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., was concerned his team didn’t have a trainer at practices or most games.

“There are multiple players on my team who have suffered injuries and have not had the correct treatment for them,” Hamilton wrote. “We are trying to see what we can do about this because this is not fair to the student athletes who put their all into something and can’t even get the proper treatment needed.”

A week later, Klossner responded that the NCAA didn’t have rules relating to the use of athletic trainers and, ironically, linked concussion awareness videos from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

Translation: This wasn’t the NCAA’s problem.

That’s a recurring theme in the organization’s response to concussions that seems an awful lot like a lack of institutional control. Pass the buck. Sure, they’ll go after a college athlete for an illicit ham sandwich (Eric Crouch in 2000), mandate the toppings a school is allowed to offer on bagels (check out the 430-page rule book) and hand Emmert unprecedented power to eviscerate Penn State (blame culture). But concussions? The organization can’t run quickly enough from its most basic reason to exist.

In January 2010, for example, two NCAA staffers mocked Klossner’s efforts to implement concussion policy. Klossner comes across in several emails as an earnest, often frustrated advocate of meaningful reform those around him didn’t, or wouldn’t, grasp.

“He reminds me of a cartoon character,” Nicole Bracken, associate director of research, wrote in an email.

“HA! I think you’re right about that,” responded Ty Halpin, director of playing rules administration, who previously complained about trying to get Klossner “off his back” and how he was “hot/heavy on the concussion stuff.”

This is the culture festering behind the NCAA logo.

A month later, Klossner summed up the NCAA’s concussion failure in another email: “Well since we don’t currently require anything all steps are higher than ours.”

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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