Concussions: The Latest Reason to Question College Athletics

The multi-billion dollar college athletics industry is under attack. While there is no shortage of reports on academic and financial abuses, a new problem is emerging: evidence of long-term neurological effects caused by high-impact head trauma in football. This problem has gained notoriety from a new movie, Concussion, which tells the story of a doctor trying to link previous head trauma to uncommon deaths in professional football players.

In the last three seasons of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I football, there have been 501 publicly reported concussions, as compiled by America Tonight in an interactive map. But that greatly understates the extent of the problem. In 2015, researchers from Harvard and Boston universities surveyed 750 current NCAA Division I football players. They determined that for every concussion student-athletes reported, they suffered six suspected concussions and 21 “dings.”

While concussions cause immediate neurological effects, the unreported “dings”—substantial hits to the head that do not exhibit outward signs of concussion—are perhaps more serious over the long term. Football players, more than any other athletes, are at high risk for a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, which can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously, causes severe depression, early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.

The one definitive shared characteristic of those diagnosed with CTE is repeated trauma to the head. According to the CTE Center at Boston University, CTE can be caused by impacts at the sub-concussive level, meaning that even players who don’t exhibit any obvious signs of head trauma may be subjecting themselves to slow-developing, irreparable brain damage. Furthermore, medical professionals agree that no helmet currently in use is capable of avoiding the trauma to the brain caused by football. 

The NCAA has often been criticized for poor handling of concussions in college football, and in 2011, a former player for Eastern Illinois University filed a concussion-related lawsuit against the NCAA. Eleven additional lawsuits were eventually added to the original complaint and it became a class action suit, which was settled in 2014. The NCAA agreed to provide $70 million to fund medical monitoring for student-athletes and $5 million for research into head injuries. Additionally, the NCAA was required to establish return-to-play guidelines and a concussion education requirement for student-athletes.

In agreeing to the settlement, the NCAA admitted no liability and during court proceedings stated that “the NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes.”

Per the settlement, in 2014 the NCAA published a list of concussion guidelines for schools to follow. The guidelines include recommendations for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of concussions. However, they are only suggestions and carry no repercussions for non-compliance. The NCAA itself stated these guidelines “were created to generate a cultural shift”; they were issued as guidelines because regulations would take longer to enact.

It’s not clear if the universities would adhere to NCAA concussion guidelines even if they were codified as regulations, however. According to the NCAA Major Infraction Database, which tracks violations of NCAA regulations, since 2004 there have been 138 instances of Division I schools violating NCAA regulations. Sixty-two of those were related to the football program, including several violations of health and safety regulations. Even though these violations carry penalties such as probation, vacating wins, and substantial fines, it is clear that universities still act outside the protocols on a regular basis. 

Since the beginning of the 2013 season, 27 college athletes have ended their football careers due to concussions. Students who choose this path not only guarantee the end of their National Football League prospects but also risk losing their scholarships and have no access to funding from the NCAA to continue their college education. These negative incentives cause some student-athletes to choose playing football even in the face of permanent neurological damage. Former University of Connecticut quarterback Casey Cochran told America Tonight that he chose to end his career after the twelfth concussion documented in his lifetime, adding that “it should be ludicrous that I got 12 concussions.” 

Even those athletes whose universities disqualify them from playing are often able to transfer to another school and continue playing. The NCAA does not have a set limit on lifetime concussions and does not provide any tracking database to show when a student has been disqualified by a previous school. Many schools, eager to recruit unused talent, seem to have no qualms about picking up these athletes. This issue is highlighted by the experience of AJ Long, a once promising quarterback who was disqualified from the football team at Syracuse University after his third documented concussion. Long made headlines recently by announcing his intention to transfer and continue playing.

Students are also severely limited in their options for covering concussion-related medical expenses. Schools are under no obligation to provide any medical care. The NCAA offers two heavily restricted programs. The Catastrophic Insurance Program is available only to students after they have incurred $90,000 in medical expenses, and the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program is available only to students who have a “professional potential to be selected in the first three rounds of the upcoming National Football League…draft.” And this program only covers expenses if a student is deemed to have suffered from “entire and irrecoverable loss of sight of both eyes or hearing in both ears, total and irrecoverable loss of use of one hand or one foot, quadriplegia, or paraplegia; thus preventing him or her from ever participating in his or her sporting activity at the professional level.” These extremely narrow circumstances have prevented virtually all student-athletes from receiving funds from the NCAA.

Although critics tend to aim their fire at the NCAA for doing so little, plenty of other decision-makers could have taken action at any time. Stricter regulations regarding head injuries could originate at the conference level, from state lawmakers, from university systems, or the schools themselves. One reason they haven’t may be that doing so would mean accepting legal liability for medical crises.

However, not all schools have dropped the ball. The Ivy League is already unique in not lowering admission criteria for student-athletes or offering athletic scholarships. Additionally, the Ivy League adopted concussion regulations in 2010, four years before the NCAA issued its guidelines. The regulations seem to be working well; none of the 501 concussions reported since 2013 occurred at an Ivy League school. The regulations adopted by the Ivies are very similar to the NCAA guidelines, but they may apply them more strictly.

Modern college football basically operates as a minor-league companion to the National Football League. Yet only 1.6 percent of the college athletes are drafted and a few others make it as free agents. That means that education is important to the futures of roughly 98 percent of college football players. While medical professionals are quick to caution the public about exaggerated fears based on sources such as Concussion, perhaps it is time to consider that college exists to improve minds, not damage them.