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

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Four years ago, exasperation crept into the voice of Rep. Linda Sanchez as she faced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a Congressional hearing.

The California Democrat pumped her right arm for emphasis.

“The NFL,” she said, “sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-90s.”

The Big Tobacco comparison, as Sanchez excoriated the commissioner in front of television cameras, remains one of the signature moments of the concussion crisis that swirls through the league.

And the razor-edged words are important to remember after Sanchez’s letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert last week seeking answers about the organization’s paper-thin concussion policy.

“I am writing,” Sanchez wrote, “to express my concern about the increasing number of traumatic brain injuries in college football.”

The innocent-sounding sentence should send a cold shiver down Emmert’s spine.

These are difficult days for the NCAA. The multi-billion dollar organization can’t escape a magnetic attraction to bad publicity. Remember the NCAA-affiliated web site selling jerseys searchable by player name earlier this year? Or Emmert’s boast that if you’re not being sued, you’re not trying?

Add those to the plodding investigations. Head-scratching rulings. Lawsuits pile up, spanning everything from the handling of concussions to allowing athletes to share in the financial windfall generated by their likenesses. An organization choking under 400-plus pages of rules that seem to shift from one case to the next.

The dysfunction has drawn the attention of Congress.

Last week, Rep. Tony Cardenas, California Democrat, and five co-sponsors introduced a bill called “The Collegiate Student Athlete Protection Act.” Based on California’s Student Athlete Bill of Rights, the legislation mandates a package of benefits for athletes at high-revenue schools, from guaranteed four-year scholarships for collision sports to changes in the enforcement process to enhanced education about the long-term dangers from concussions.

In August, Reps. Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania Republican, and Joyce Beatty, Ohio Democrat, brought in a separate bill to mandate baseline concussion testing for college athletes, mandate irrevocable four-year scholarships and more.

In an era of partisan gridlock, NCAA reform is an issue that appears to cross party lines.

Sanchez’s letter didn’t draw the same attention as the two pieces of legislation or Sen. Harry Reid’s April comments suggesting Congress investigative the NCAA’s circuitous enforcement process. But the consequences of the six paragraphs are no less important.

“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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