Concussions, Collegiate Football, and the Need for Change
The following article is the first in a three-part Centrepiece series exploring “the concussion issue,” including ongoing research at Centre College and the conservative and proactive approaches taken by Centre Athletics.
A person doesn’t have to look far to find examples of life’s absurdity. And one could read this piece as an example of just that—the absurd. But the story I have to tell is far more disturbing. The absurd merits a few shakes of our head or a resigned laugh about the crazy world we live in. But the issue of concussions in collegiate football is not an icon of absurdity. It is an emblem of injustice, a reality to be grieved, and something that can and must change.
It may come as no surprise that the National Football League (NFL), which currently generates over $13 billion in revenue a year, is having trouble coming to terms with the connection between traumatic head injury and football. There is more to lose in terms of revenue for the NFL than they think they stand to gain by doing the right thing. The commitment to generating profit can mask all sorts of morally indefensible behavior.
It is fair for us to assume, however, that collegiate athletics stands on firmer moral ground. After all, our institutions of higher learning are keepers of some of America’s highest moral ideals. These are institutions created not to generate profit, but to foster learning and growth. These are institutions whose reason for being is to cultivate the moral fabric of our civil society, to kindle ethical standards for our economic, political, and social relationships. These institutions help young minds realize their dreams.
Unfortunately, those values seem to atrophy when you walk through the doors of athletic departments across the country, particularly athletic departments in Division I programs. A superficial look at the way concussions are being addressed in college football reveals “best practices” such as diagnostic tests that are run on sidelines and the new care taken to not return symptomatic players to the game. Beneath the surface of these practices, however, is clear evidence of a refusal to take a hard look at preventative measures and other data that could help protect those who play sports in our universities.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), composed of its university member institutions, is similarly unwilling to embrace effective research on head injuries. Instead, it is investing in studies that compare the brain imaging of concussed athletes to the brains of athletes without concussion diagnoses. However, the science of subconcussive hits (that is, those hits that do not result in a concussion diagnosis), means that this approach is fatally flawed. Concussions could appear to be not so detrimental if concussed and nonconcussed scans don’t differ much. Research must account for subconcussive hits for the results to be sound.
Not long ago, my husband, John, a 26-year NFL and Division I football coach, and I would have allowed ourselves to feel good about the steps athletic programs and the NCAA are taking on concussions. Then we met three people who changed our views.
Purdue engineers Tom Talavage and Eric Nauman are engaged in cutting-edge research on sports-related head injury as part of the Purdue Neurotrauma Group. The amazing thing about their work is that by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they can see brain changes in players who have never been diagnosed with concussions. Their unique approach is unmatched and rests in their method of taking preseason scans that provide clear evidence of brain changes in players who are asymptomatic and undiagnosed for concussions.
This study not only generates potent data about the effects of repeated subconcussive blows, but it includes new helmet technologies and data-gathering techniques that could save football from its own demise. The Purdue Neurotrauma Group has proven methods of prevention, not just protocols for treatment after a concussion happens. And diagnosed concussions are just the tip of the iceberg. As postmortem brain studies are showing us, football players who may not have ever been diagnosed with a concussion have brains that suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that is, brain degeneration that likely is caused by repeated head traumas.
Talavage and Nauman have the technology and the data to fill in the blanks. And better yet, they have the technology and the data to make football safer. What an exciting prospect to have such a groundbreaking study in the Big 10 Conference, one of the two wealthiest sports conferences in the country. It is clear that Purdue University has an opportunity not just to do the right thing by its athletes, but to set the pace for the prevention of head injuries in sports. All the conditions are there for a win-win situation.
The other man who profoundly influenced John and me is filmmaker and former University of Southern California football player Bob DeMars. We met at a conference where his new documentary film, The Business of Amateurs, was being screened. His film is a powerful depiction of the injustices in collegiate revenue athletics. I thought I was wide-awake about the issues, but after viewing the movie I saw concussions very differently.
I told DeMars that I wanted to bring him and his film to Purdue for an honest discussion about these important issues. Just a few weeks later, John and I met Talavage and Nauman and heard about their amazing research. The DeMars film and work by Talavage and Nauman were a match made in heaven. We could have an event that didn’t just discuss harsh realities, but would also provide game-changing solutions that were at Purdue’s fingertips. I felt proud and excited to be a part of an institution with such resources and opportunity.
Fast forward almost a year. Our desire to invite an honest conversation and to help make football better, along with our belief that Purdue would do the right thing, has turned my family’s world upside down. What’s left to share of the story is a set of disappointing twists and turns.
John and I hosted that event we dreamed up with DeMars, Talavage, and Nauman on March 20 of this year. We invited other panelists in the trenches of sports justice issues: retired North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who is currently arguing a landmark case against the NCAA and the University of North Carolina; Natalie Graves, a Chicago social worker who has dedicated her practice to working with athletes; and Coach Terry Peebles, a high school football coach who is participating in the work Talavage and Nauman are doing and runs a model program in Indiana. You need only to look at where our event was and who was there to know how Purdue University has decided to position itself on concussions and sports justice.
We could not have the event on campus because Purdue had fired John on Nov. 29, a decision linked to our stances on justice issues in sports. In the audience of the event were a sprinkling of Purdue athletes, but no football players. We had set the date for the event in consultation with players so that they could attend and some even participate on our panel. About two weeks before the event, the football program set a meeting for the day it was to take place (a Sunday) so that players would be unable to attend. We shared information with student groups on campus to get the word out. However, the committee that represents the interests of athletes on campus was told it could not promote our event because it was “about paying players,” which the University does not support. Others, including untenured faculty members, chose not to participate or even attend because they feared repercussions from the administration.
The event was a potent experience, and everyone who did attend was filled with a resolve to do something. The technology for profound and effective prevention is there. The willingness to invest and participate in it is not. A disturbing layer to this story rests in the fact that Purdue’s athletic department has chosen not to participate in the work that Talavage and Nauman are doing right on Purdue’s campus. The university claims the reason is the cost. Figures for the study range from $20,000 for partial data gathering of a select group of athletes to $400,000 a year for a more inclusive approach.
Even the highest figure, $400,000, is pennies in the scheme of Big 10 finances. Purdue spends exorbitant amounts of money recruiting athletes. The expensive push to get athletes to commit to Purdue unfolds into a disturbing lack of commitment to these same players’ well-being, rights, and long-term health once they arrive on campus. The greatest threat to athletes at every level is not concussions; it is the shameful moral failure of the institutions they work so hard to please.
Ironically, the salary Purdue once paid my husband is the exact figure the Neurotrauma Group needs to do a comprehensive study at Purdue. That fact is an emblem of the moral dilemma John and I have had to face down these last several months. My family has certainly benefitted from the way the system works. And if any capital we have generated in this business was at the expense of the well-being and health of the players we love, that possibility places us as at a crossroads. We have decided that advocating for players’ rights and reforms in big-time college sports means that we need to step away from the life we have lived these last 26 years.
Some people say we’re crazy to walk away from the money and the “exciting” life of Division I college sports. They said the same thing to us when we chose to leave the NFL for the college level. We were searching for a higher purpose than football being just a business, perhaps an absurd quest. We don’t regret one minute of our lives in football, mostly because of the players who are so dear to us. It is painful to step away for lots of reasons, but we have seen too much to not continue to speak out. The pain and the resolve both come out of love—love of the people we’ve met and love of the game.
It is because of that love that we are not stepping back from spreading the word and continuing the conversation about the injustices of collegiate sports. Traumatic brain injuries call on our nation’s universities to show the true colors of their moral commitments. My prayer is that those true colors are not just green.
by Marcia Mount Shoop ’91
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop ’91, Ph.D, is a theologian, minister, and author of three books, including Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports. Marcia and her husband, John, have a new podcast, Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century at www.shoopsgoingdeep.com. She coached middle school cross-country and track teams in West Lafayette, Ind., for the last three years and is in Centre’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Recently she was called to be the new senior pastor/head of staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C.
Also read: Concussions: Centre’s Conservative Approach