FENNO: NCAA finds way into Rep. Linda Sanchez’s crosshairs over concussions

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“We must do better,” she wrote.

Troubling details about the death of Frostburg State University football player Derek Sheely after a brain injury sustained in practice in August 2011 prompted Sanchez’s missive. The NCAA has been hit by at least six concussion-related lawsuits, including one by Sheely’s family, but has avoided the same attention that’s surrounded each step of the NFL’s proposed $765 million settlement after more than 4,800 former players sued. But at least 29,000 athletes in NCAA-sanctioned sports suffered concussions between 2004 and 2009, over 16,000 in football.

The NCAA’s response to the problem, legislated in 2010, requires each school to have a concussion management plan on file. That’s it.

Sanchez asked four questions that, at first glance, sound innocuous. That’s not quite the case, however.

The second question is where the NCAA’s problems start: “What is the NCAA doing to ensure that member universities are following the 2010 NCAA policy that requires them to draft concussion plans? And what are you doing to ensure schools adhere to this protocol?”

There’s no good answer.

Internal NCAA emails and documents made public earlier this year in connection with a federal lawsuit admit even the minimal standard of having that piece of paper on file isn’t double-checked or enforced. No school has been investigated or penalized for not following their plan.

The entire approach is a paper tiger.

Even vanilla return-to-play standards are wanting. An internal NCAA survey in 2010 found 39 percent of responding schools had no guidelines for athletes sitting out after being concussed. Under 50 percent required visiting a doctor before being cleared to return.

The third question adds to the NCAA’s predicament: “Has the NCAA penalized colleges and universities that allow student-athletes to participate in a game after being injured or being diagnosed with a concussion? If so, what are the penalties?”

These aren’t the casual questions of a letter between friends, but, instead, pointed ones that cut to basic steps that aren’t being taken to protect college athletes by the organization that ostensibly exists to protect them.

Sanchez’s long-running interest in the issue extends to 2007 hearings on the NFL’s disability plan’s impact on retired players. Brain injuries aren’t a new interest for her.

Watch the tape of the 2009 hearings as Goodell stammered and squirmed about questions he couldn’t answer and you wonder what’s in store for Emmert.

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