Michigan AD Brandon’s Un-Serious Approach to Concussion-Management (and College Athletics Reform)
The NCAA Constitution claims its core value is protection of the “welfare of the student-athlete.” If that’s true, then Michigan’s handling of Shane Morris’ chin-lifting whomp the other day raises questions about the role of head coach Brady Hoke, Michigan’s sideline concussion management protocol, AD David Brandon, new Michigan President Dr. Mark Schissel, the NCAA’s new $30 million concussion-study initiative (in concert with the U.S. Army, and actually headed-up by Michigan’s own medical school), and the NCAA’s own policy for handling concussions.
1) Has Brady Hoke taken concussion management seriously? No. Here is Hoke’s ignorant post-game comment: “Shane wanted to be the quarterback; if he didn’t want to be, he would’ve come to the sidelines.” Hoke’s view is badly outdated, and no medical expert now would dare contend that the possibly concussed player should be the “last decider” as to whether he is removed from the field.
But I’ll bet my Chuck Taylors that anyone will tell you Hoke is a palpably decent person. There’s no intent there, really. What’s there is Hoke’s limited field of knowledge. He still resides in the Dick Butkus, Bobby Layne and Mike Ditka old-school (mid-20th century) smashmouth football injury-management paradigm, in which player toughness is measured by the ability to “take hits.”
But the game has changed, and Hoke needs to change, quickly: forty years ago the linemen were all 60 pounds lighter, few players did weight-training year-round, and no quarterback “pocket” (within which the QB becomes a “target” for huge opposing linemen) even existed. And the risk of injury, with all these behemoth lineman rocketing around, is not only now much greater, but more clearly defined by new science. Hoke just doesn’t seem to ‘get it’, and has not taken his role in concussion management seriously enough. But his handling of the issue, by itself, does not mandate his dismissal. He needs concussion-management training, and fast.
2) Is Michigan at all serious about its concussion-management duties?: No. That Hoke is stuck in the dark ages of player safety makes clear that concussion management is a low-priority for the entire athletics department, which is AD David Brandon’s doing. Hoke’s apparent failure to receive material information about Morris’ hit, in fact, reveals that Michigan’s sideline concussion-management protocols are badly lacking. Perhaps Hoke really didn’t see the Morris hit, or see him then stagger, however hard that is to believe. And perhaps Hoke’s quirky, if not foolhardy, refusal to wear a headset then prevented him from receiving potentially important information from other sources. Whatever the precise cause, Michigan’s poor safety-monitoring information collection and communication protocols created an unnecessary safety risk for Morris (and other Michigan football players).
What the Morris event reveals is that Michigan — and NCAA — concussion-management policies should mandate an independent press box “Safety Monitor.” Mere sideline “monitoring” of player safety is not enough; a second safety monitor, located in the press box, is required. This Safety Monitor “up top” would also have at his side several TV screens, and an ability to communicate injury or safety information directly to the sidelines (either to the head or assistant coach who is equipped with a headset.) This kind of electronic tie-in with an “aerial monitor” is hardly revolutionary: play-calling and review, after all, has been long taken advantage of such an arrangement — and safety monitoring is more important than play-calling, if you believe the NCAA’s claim that “student-athlete welfare” is top priority.
Some smaller, non-‘Power 5’ schools might legitimately claim that perhaps the cost of manning such a press box Safety Monitor position would be prohibitive. But Michigan’s repeated position as a top-5 grossing athletic operation, its history of drawing the largest live-attendance crowds on almost every college football Saturday for the last forty years, and the recent explosion in its annual income derived from the successful Big Ten network, all make it difficult for Michigan to argue that it can’t afford an up-top Safety Monitor.
Michigan’s shabby concussion-management environment should be state-of-the-art. David Brandon hasn’t shown the slightest interest in the topic, though his Midwestern-Babbitt preoccupation with the dollar probably made his ears perk up when he heard that the Army and the NCAA wanted to pay Michigan some of the $30 million dollars for performing concussion research.
3) Is the “advisory” nature of the NCAA Concussion-Management policy “advisable”? No. At present, the NCAA’s concussion-management policy is not mandatory for members, most likely because the NCAA lawyers have insisted that maintaining it as “permissive” allows the NCAA to minimize liability for player concussion injuries. This leaves the NCAA in the morally bankrupt position of wishing to continue to receive $1 billion in annual income derived from games performed by players, while leaving the risk and cost of player injuries to the players themselves. And leaves member-schools like Michigan to flail incompetently at concussion-management, as we saw on Saturday.
4) Where’s “Waldo” David Brandon on Important Concussion-management leadership? AWOL. Appearances suggest a lack of seriousness of purpose in Michigan concussion-management practices, yet Michigan was named as a leader in the NCAA’s vaunted concussion study announced last spring. But if the NCAA is spending $30 million (with the U.S. Army) on a concussion study, and Michigan is supposed to lead that study, is it fair to now question exactly how well Michigan is going to execute its assignment?
That study, in fact, is directed toward “data-collection” about concussion on-field injuries. But but didn’t we just find out from Michigan’s looney press release on the day after the Minnesota game that Michigan apparently believes that there was, on that field where we all saw Morris get zonked on Saturday, no concussion data to collect? Yet isn’t the Morris hit exactly the kind of hit which ought to be the subject of thorough examination and data collection, even if such data eventually shows that no concussion occurred? And shouldn’t we all then be a tad concerned, based on the screwball concussion management on the Michigan sidelines, about how well Michigan will fulfill its leadership role in the $30 million study? How much material data, it is fair to ask, will be left out?
Questions for the Next Michigan Press Conference: More to the point, aren’t these the first, pressing questions which need to be asked at the next press conference (which should be held by AD Brandon, but won’t be):
Question: whether the $30 million dollar study will include any data about that Shane Morris September 27 hit?
Question: what is the update as to what Michigan and others have done concerning this study to date, what is the overall plan, and how does Michigan medical school fit into those plans? The assignment to Michigan of primary responsibility in executing the NCAA’s concussion study should have been a big opportunity for Michigan. Building the brand, is what Brandon might call it, though others might call it giving primacy to player safety. But Michigan’s AWOL concussion-management system has already damaged that “brand.”
Question: do you have enough information now to conclude that the entire NCAA prtocol used for collecting data is in need of revision?
Question: shouldn’t Michigan be studying the very data-collection, and information-communication procedures used by Michigan on the sidelines on September 27, to determine the appropriate model for use in all circumstances? (Not just to collect data about how many stars were, for example, in Shane Morris’ eyes, but also data about the precise injury-and-concussion sideline procedures which would maximize player safety.)
Michigan’s Brandon has bungled this entire issue. Hoke issued a press release — apparently, according to Hoke, without Brandon or Hoke having spoken — which made Hoke subject to ridicule. And Hoke’s press conference (combined with the earlier press release) has mimicked Roger Goodell’s vapid PR moves: both ignore the new reality that video evidence trumps PR spin, every time. The #2 Rice video showed a brutal slug inflicted on a female, but also exposed Roger Goodell’s long habit (and job duty) to dissemble and bury such domestic violence encounters. The Shane Morris videos showed its own violent hit, in the midst of a football game, and exposed Michigan’s outdated and institutionally cavalier concussion management procedures. This falls on David Brandon, whose department appears to have only lackluster interest in the entire issue.
But these events also expose David Brandon’s recurrent, profound flaw: his consistent failure to exercise leadership on college sports reform. Brandon, as leader of a flagship college athletic operation, was originally given a natural bully pulpit from which to lead reform of the college sports business model which Brandon himself has labeled as “horrible” and “broken.” But Brandon has shown himself deaf, dumb and blind about fixing that model which he believes is so badly broken — and about fixing the clearly “broken” concussion-management issue, which is showing increasing signs of radically changing college football.
The result is that, rather than leading this concussion-treatment evolution, Michigan is lagging behind, probably because Brandon is preoccupied with maximizing the Michigan athletic department’s gross income.
A Challenge for Michigan’s new President, Dr. Schissel: This series of events is a challenge to new U of M President, Dr. Schlissel. Michigan’s new physician-President needs to seize this issue, to insure that the nexus between the Michigan athletic mission and its medical mission is properly developed, by making Michigan a leader in this public health field. Schissel needs to speak with the press, and outline Michigan’s commitment to thorough and vigorous oversight of player concussion safety issues , and also to the thoroughness and integrity of the $30 million dollar concussion study meant to define the “state of the art” in player protection protocols. Schissler, not Brandon, can and should lead Michigan, and all of college sports, to mend its “broken” model to protect the “welfare of the student-athlete.”