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Is It Time For The NCAA To Put A Standard Concussion Policy In Place?

A controversial decision in the Red River Showdown has us wondering if the NCAA should follow the NFL’s lead.

Getty Images - Greg Nelson

Is It Time For The NCAA To Put A Standard Concussion Policy In Place?

Yes, yes it is time to make sure schools are doing everything they can to protect the brains of the student-athletes, and the NCAA has the power to make it happen. Why are we talking about this now? Because of the Red River Showdown game.

Before we get into the specific incident during the OU-Texas game, to say that the NCAA is laissez-faire on the issue of concussions is an understatement. Basically, the current policy just tells schools to have some sort of policy and protocol in place and have it be “consistent” with the NCAA’s best practices guidelines. That is it, something that can be summed up with a, “well, give it your best effort, ya?”, and the NCAA will just take their word for it.

And make no mistake, you aren’t going to find many football players that are going to straight up tell you they don’t think they can go. They all want to get back onto the field. That’s the nature of a hard-hitting physical sport. However, what one school does to protect their athletes can be vastly different from another.

This is an outrage. People under the age of 23 can suffer from Second-Impact Syndrome. Second-Impact Syndrome can kill somebody or cause sever disabilities. Complicating the issue is the neuroscience does not have an accepted diagnostic criteria. So, flashing a light in someone’s eyes to see if they are concussed is not always going to give you a correct answer.

The NFL, after  reams of deservedly bad press on the issue, implemented what is now considered the gold standard of concussion protocols. First, players are removed from sidelines and taken off the sidelines to the locker room or training room if there is “suspicion” of a concussion. This gets the coaches, other players, and fans out of the periphery that can give pressure for a player to come back. The player is then checked out by not only the team doctor, but also an unaffiliated doctor. They both have to clear the player.

The player, if cleared, is then monitored during the rest of the game. There are also various checks that must be made throughout the week to finally clear a player from the protocol. The NFL has this developing policy and protocol because common symptoms of concussion might not present themselves until days later. Basically, it is trying to catch as many upfront as possible and, for the few that slip through the cracks, catch them on the back end.

The NCAA and its member schools are under no such compulsion.

Which makes what happened on Saturday in the Red River Showdown so concerning.

The University of Texas and Coach Tom Herman deserve the benefit of the doubt. No news has broken that any concussion symptoms have since arisen for Ehlinger, and he seems to be free and clear. However, that doesn’t mean putting him back on the field, no matter how he said he felt, was the right move. Luckily, Ehlinger appears to be okay, but can we count on luck every time?

Going back in time, with out these few days knowledge, it sure seemed like there was very reasonable suspicion that Ehlinger has a concussion. This is what we saw. Ehlinger was tackled with his head clearly striking the ground on the Texas sideline. We’ve seen this kind of impact knock players out of the game before.

He laid motionless for a number of seconds even after trainers started to attending to him in a fetal or ball position, which is indicative of head trauma. Some cameras caught Ehlinger’s face when we was sat up, looked a little vacant but he could have been staring at something on the field. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell from behind the camera, but it is concerning.

Ehlinger was then moved to a training tent, but quickly returned to the game just a few plays later and then threw the ball away on fourth down with the game on the line. Freshman mistake? Maybe. However, to say that throwing the ball away is just a freshman mistake is to assume that all these guys have never been in pressure situations during all their years of playing sports beforehand.

It really looked like Texas had rushed back a player who was concussed. Top neuroscientist around the country were wondering why he was back in. It was bad optics for Texas. But, the blame is not on them, it is on the NCAA.

Hard hit of head on the ground, not moving, fetal position, vacant expression… Pick a doctor, especially a neurologist, and they are going to tell you that these signs are suspicion of a concussion. A 60 second test is not enough to diagnose if one actually occurred, especially since there is no set diagnostic criteria. Multiple tests need to take place using a variety of criteria.

We don’t know to what extend Ehlinger was tested, but basic logic tells us that testing is going to take some time, not just a few quick minutes.

I am not blaming the University of Texas, its coaching staff, or its doctors and training staff. What I am saying is that there needs to be a universal policy and protocol that protects these kids from potentially life threatening situations that can be completely avoided. The blame here is on the NCAA.

Texas is actually one of the more proactive schools on this issue. What does that mean for the literally hundreds of other FBS and FCS schools and their players? It means that thousands of players are at risk of playing while concussed because their schools are not as proactive with safety measures because nobody is making them be.

The NCAA’s concussion protocol is basically just using the honor system. What could go wrong?

Yes, Ehlinger was alright this time, but what about the next guy? Is it going to take another Brady Hoke sending out an obviously concussed quarterback because his job is on the line and the doctors be damned? Or, is it going to take a player dying during a highly televised game before the NCAA finally decides to protect the students that make them rich? Because it sure has not been just the goodness of their hearts so far.

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