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FENNO: Championship game provides an opportunity to listen to those who play

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Four hours before the Bowl Coalition Series championship game between Auburn and Florida State kicks off Monday in Pasadena, Calif., an airplane will tow a banner over the Rose Bowl.

"All Players United for Concussion Reform," the message will read. "Wake up NCAA!"

Will anyone notice?

The All Players United movement, spurred by the reform-minded National Collegiate Players Association, started in September when several college football players scrawled "APU" on their uniforms. They wanted to draw attention to issues ranging from player safety to compensation. They wanted a voice.

Even college football's climax isn't immune from the turmoil buffeting the NCAA.

The embattled organization has spent the better part of the last year dodging and deeking the inconvenient truth the banner will inject into the final edition of the BCS.

Concussions aren't a pleasant conversation to have when the country's top two teams collide in one of the showcases of our national religion. We'd rather discuss point spreads and break down matchups and parse press conference double-speak than pull back the curtain around the helmeted gladiators who help the NCAA generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

But the least we can do is listen to some of the college athletes who hurl themselves against each other for our entertainment while most, as the old NCAA commercial goes, go pro in something other than sports.

The game carries a price, far beyond the $69.95 jerseys that just happen to feature the No. 5 of Florida State's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.

But that cost fades into the background, papered over by the pageantry and high-minded statements that amount to little more than window-dressing on an issue the NCAA is loathe to confront.

In a court filing last month obtained by The Washington Times in connection with the death of Frostburg State football player Derek Sheely, the NCAA declared it has no legal duty to protect college athletes. Not once, but three times in black and white. No duty to protect the product that, among other accomplishments, resulted in tickets going for $260 and up on the secondary market for Monday's game.

Remember that when the NCAA's next gauzy commercial touting all the organization's good floats across your television screen.

Those guys running around the field after the commercial break, the same ones the NCAA will hunt down if they're compensated for signing their own name? It don't believe any duty exists to protect them.

Maybe that makes the NCAA's toothless legislation concerning concussions, adopted in 2010, understandable. No organization serious about protecting the long-term mental and physical well-being of athletes would stop at requiring schools to have a concussion management plan on file. Those plans aren't audited or enforced. They exist on paper. That's it.

An Auburn or Florida State player could, in theory, be concussed during Monday's game and return for the next play -- such a maneuver would violate one tenant of those concussion policies the schools are supposed to have -- without eliciting so much as a phone call or inquiry from the NCAA.

Last year, the NCAA's chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Hainline, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that keeping athletes from returning the play the same day they suffered a concussion wasn't "widely accepted" until 2012. Such a practice, however, is hardly new to anything with a passing familiarity with the issue.

Hainline, incidentally, used to work with Dr. Elliot Pellman, the notorious NFL medical consultant known for suspect science on a series of concussion-related studies, at ProHealth Care Associates in New York. Among Pellman's claims: players could return to games after concussions.

When Mark Emmert hired Hainline in 2012, the NCAA president noted that his organization "was founded on the commitment to protect and enhance the health and well-being of student-athletes." The same commitment the NCAA explicitly denied in the court papers.

That's just the start of the problem the banner wants the NCAA (and the Rose Bowl crowd) to wake up to.

While the NFL's reduction on contact practices (14 during the 17-week regular season) has trickled down to the Ivy League and Pac-12, NCAA rules still permit football teams five such practices each week. Most schools are wise enough not to use that allotment. But the Stone Age frequency of contact remains entirely legal for those interested in indulging in such head-crunching theatrics.

Last month, 10 class-action lawsuits over the NCAA's handling of concussions involving 18 former college football players were consolidated with a long-running case in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Meanwhile, the NCAA enjoys 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, Emmert made $1.7 million in 2011, the most recent year records were available, and next year's new College Football Playoff bring schools an estimated $400 million in annual revenue.

On Monday, the nine-word banner will try to remind us that this is just a game obscuring a sobering reality with consequences that remain long after the glow from a national title has worn off. And the NCAA needs to wake up.

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