Monday, October 06, 2014
The tackle made national news. Michigan quarterback Shane Morris caught a Minnesota defender’s helmet under his chin and went down flat. He didn’t move for several seconds, and when he got up he was wobbly and unable to hold himself up. Yet he stayed on the field one more play before he was pulled. Even more troubling, a few plays later there he was taking the snap. The question on every news report: How did this happen? The coach said he doesn’t wear a headset, saw Morris wave him off, and thought his stumbling was due to an earlier ankle sprain. Michigan’s athletic director blamed it on poor communication and confusion on the sidelines. Yet, everyone saw the hit, saw the aftermath, and saw Morris stagger. It was broadcast on the jumbo screen more than once, and more importantly Morris’ teammates knew how the hit had affected him. So it’s natural that many viewers and sportscasters express cynicism towards the excuses offered by staff and administrators.
In the aftermath of the national hue and cry, Michigan instituted a new policy. Instead of having a neurologist just on the sidelines, they will now have one up in the command booth. I’m not sure how a doctor two hundred feet above the field will be able to do the nuanced assessment necessary to determine if a player should be examined or not. Nevertheless it’s an acknowledgement of how serious playing an injured athlete can be. It also brings home the point that has eluded too many NCAA Division I football programs: this is only a game and the emphasis should be on the “student” part of student-athlete.
When college players began demanding to be paid a salary based on the huge profits NCAA and the colleges were making, they were reacting to an evolution in amateur sports that has gone from absolutely no endorsements, no profits, no big budgets to exactly the opposite. They felt they deserved a piece of that financial pie since it was rolled out on their backs. The unfortunate fact is that we are witnessing the reason coaches are less willing to protect their players when they feel the injury isn’t severe enough. They are under pressure to win because winning creates a deeper revenue stream and winning insures their job. It’s probably no coincidence that Michigan is at the bottom of the Big Ten conference with an 0-2 conference record and an overall 2-4 record, so the coach’s job is in jeopardy along with the program’s prestige. So sticking with a quarterback who may not be great or healthy but is better than the alternatives becomes the coach’s best option to secure a win. The players, seeing this push to preserve and grow profits, understand that they may end up with a career-ending injury in the drive for money. So they want to share in the windfalls because it may be their only chance. It becomes a vicious cycle. Schools want to protect their financial bounty, in doing so they ask young players to take risks that could eliminate them from the pros, so players want money up front and leave themselves vulnerable to serious injury, which could endanger a winning season. We see the same scenario in the pros where bonuses are based on things like consecutive games played and tough hits placing those athletes in at risk situations. The big difference is that pro players are usually over 21 and have signed monetary contracts while college players are usually still in their teens and may or may not even have a scholarship.
When Shane Morris waved off the coaches, indicating that he felt he was fine to play, he was probably motivated by two things: first, he felt he was the one who needed to lead his team even though they were down 30-7 when he got his bell rung and second, players are taught to tough it out if they want to remain starters. Coaches make it clear that mental toughness is as important as physical toughness. So injured players tend to override pain with mental fortitude and fight through the damage. The Monday following the Morris incident, Today Show viewers were asked to weigh in on the question “Who should decide if a player can continue in a game?” The results showed 64 percent said “the coach” but surprisingly 36 percent said “the player.” Letting an injured player decide if he or she is able to return to the game is like asking a drunk driver if he or she can operate a motor vehicle. Judgment is impaired by a number of factors. Finding out how much pain a player is in or whether or not they have limited movement is part of the assessment. But the decision should be solely up to a trainer or doctor, not a coach and not a player. If the medical personnel clear a player then it becomes the coach’s along with the player’s decision.
Luckily on this point, soccer and other less attended sports at NCAA schools have an advantage. There aren’t huge sums of money riding on wins. Certainly prestige is important to play for, and water polo, soccer, and lacrosse teams to name just a few of the scores of underrepresented college sports regularly play for honor and glory. However, the coaches can err to the side of safety without sacrificing any monetary benefit a win would have for the school. The plain facts are that the big business of college football and men’s basketball have laid the ground for ignoring the overall safety of those players. Several plays before his concussion, Morris got clipped on his ankle, suffering a high sprain. He spent the entire rest of the game hobbling, wincing every time he was hit. In fact, several commentators argued that he got his head battered because he could not get out of the way fast enough due to his ankle injury, and watching the play I could see a case for that. That he was still in the game after injuring his ankle so severely begs the question — how bad does an injury need to be to sideline a youth player (and I consider college players still youth)? Fans have a role in this process because we stand by our alma maters and our local colleges with a fierceness of competitive spirit that encourages athletic programs to get wins at any cost just to preserve their honor. My graduate alma mater is the University of Oregon, which has a national football reputation. My husband is a bigger fan than I am even though he never attended the school. I know how much a loss devastates him. Multiply that disfavor by a million, and you have the makings of serious pressure on the school to succeed. I really admired Chip Kelly for pulling key players off the field due to either injury or discipline even in significant games. Of course, it’s easier to do that if you keep winning, which he did due to a deep bench. Other schools aren’t so fortunate and really rely on the starters to get them through the four quarters.
Within the culture of toughing it out and winning at any price, we have to attend to the youth players and their safety. You’re not an over-protective parent when it comes to injuries that can ultimately limited an athlete’s playing life, not to mention their off-field life. It’s our job as parents to be vigilant over our kids’ health. Michigan has lots of good football in its future and hopefully Shane Morris will be a part of that success, but he can’t be if he is too beat up to continue. Despite battles for ranking, conference or league dominance, and championship contests in the end it’s got to be about the players and their safety. They can possess drive, pride, and skills that make them want to over-stretch, so it’s the job of parents, coaches, and administrators to protect their bodies and minds while giving them the wisdom to make the proper decisions once they evolve into adults.