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Big Ten needs to stop talking, start acting for true player safety

Concussions are not a new issue, and neither are players trying to hide or mask injury. Both have happened since the sport was invented back in the 1860’s, but that doesn’t mean things have to stay the same. After all, the sport adopted the forward pass in part to help with player safety concerns and have made quarterbacks nearly untouchable in the past decade.

None of the efforts have eliminated injury completely, and on Saturday the trauma of head injuries came to the forefront as Michigan’s Shane Morris appeared to get a concussion after a hard hit by Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran.

While much has been written about Brady Hoke’s handling of the situation, as well as the reaction of the Michigan athletic department following the injury to Morris, little attention has been paid to one group that wields more power than anyone to make sure change happens — the Big Ten.
Let’s backtrack to the year 2012 for a moment. On June 19 of that year, the Big Ten and Ivy League touted a “historic partnership” to research the effects of head injuries in sports. It was heralded as historic because of the academic prowess of the two conferences and the focus on research.

It was also part of the initiative to respond to public concerns expressed by current and ex players about the lack of care about safety and the withholding of information about the effects of concussions on players.

Back in 2012 the Big Ten took a big step towards helping future players, coaches and training staffs understand the long-term effects that concussions can have. That is to be applauded, but the silence from the league in the wake of what happened Saturday is deafening.

“CIC member universities have collaborated for more than 50 years, but this is the deepest and most significant research and academic collaboration we’ve launched. It draws perfectly on the intersection of great medicine, great athletics and great academics that characterizes what is best in our universities.”

So much so that we’ve now got a New Jersey congressman sending a letter demanding action from the conference.

The Big Ten has a golden opportunity to show that player safety isn’t just a concern in the abstract, but that it takes these situations seriously.

Commissioner Jim Delany should be calling an emergency meeting of athletic directors, team doctors and university presidents to figure out how this situation can be avoided in the future.

Getting all the right minds in the same room or on the same conference call this week and announcing a measured, smart and proactive policy for all Big Ten teams regardless of sport would go a long way towards showing the conference really does care.

It also takes the pressure off individual actors that for the most part have no business commenting on or making decisions about a medical diagnosis.

Speaking of medical opinions, we were lucky enough to speak with athletic trainer Jason Cruikshank about this issue, and he made it very clear as to why Morris should’ve never been allowed back in the game.

How does the Big Ten take the lead here?

Start with an independent medical advisor who is watching the game for concussion-like symptoms, who can then relay that information to either medical staff on either sideline. Make it so that the player must also go back to the locker room to be checked out with a full battery of concussion tests, and make sure said player’s helmet is taken away (or shoes in the case of players whose sport doesn’t require a helmet).

While I’m sure there are other ideas out there, this would be a good starting point for the remainder of the college football season and expandable as the year goes on. Making sure players aren’t put back in after a whole 90-seconds of testing should be a minimum standard.

Reality is, the day of “the player waved me off to say he was OK” as an acceptable answer to a medical question have passed. Players also need to take responsibility in the matter and realize that being the macho man who can overcome anything to win a game isn’t worth risking long-term health for.

But, some of those scenarios are years away from happening. You can’t change a culture overnight, but you can chip away at it — and that’s where the Big Ten conference and Jim Delany can set the tone for change.

The Big Ten loves to tout its “groundbreaking” initiatives and proudly flaunt its academic reputation as a forward-thinking conference. How about becoming forward thinking in the name of player safety and developing a league-wide concussion protocol?

We dare you to stand up for true player safety and make sure that no school every does to another player what Michigan has done to Shane Morris over the last 72 hours.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball


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