No Concussion Penalty in NCAA ; What’s Going to Happen with A-Rod?


National College Football Writer

Why the NCAA won’t adopt concussion penalties — at least not yet
One of the more contentious issues at the NCAA convention last month was the creation of the Concussion Safety Protocol Committee by the Power Five conferences. The committee will annually review and approve schools’ written procedures for handling concussions — an issue tied to the long-term health of athletes and the popularity of the games they play.

Several Big 12 representatives argued the policy did not go far enough because the initial language failed to include giving medical personnel unchallenged authority to care for players. That got fixed. A current college athlete even made a motion to withhold voting, saying the policy didn’t go far enough. That motion failed.

What got passed for 2015-16 is a committee that approves a school’s concussion plans by sport before the team can annually participate, yet a committee that cannot penalize anyone if procedures get violated. The committee moved the ball forward — a positive for some people but not nearly enough for others.

Why is there not enough support to attach penalties yet to return-to-play concussion guidelines?

“Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who supports penalties. “They want to have local control and their coaches saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.’”

In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that nearly half of the trainers surveyed in major college football said they felt pressure from coaches to return concussed players to the field before they were medically ready. A 2010 NCAA survey revealed in ongoing litigation showed that nearly half of responding universities said they returned athletes in the same game after a concussion diagnosis.

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said he hopes the guidelines for concussion care released last year eventually become NCAA rules with an enforcement mechanism. But he doesn’t vote; the membership does.

Hainline said an NCAA hotline will be established so the committee can be asked to reevaluate a school’s protocol. The purpose isn’t to assess a professional’s medical care, which Hainline said carries risks of violating privacy laws and can be difficult in retrospect. Rather, if a request is granted, the committee is charged with determining if concussion protocol occurred properly and whether any changes need to be made. spoke with multiple Division I commissioners to get a sense of NCAA members’ apprehension about penalties. Some support the idea and believe the NCAA was founded as an oversight organization that should lead on safety. Others say penalties aren’t needed and would lead to too much regulation.

“One of the things that became very clear in all of our discussions in Washington (at the NCAA convention) is very few would be in favor of a panel second-guessing the medical approaches applied to dealing with medical care on campus,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “I’m not sure you can go much further than a requirement to submit your protocol.”

Concussion incidents at football games draw the most attention, such as when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris returned for a play while woozy. (He was later diagnosed with a concussion and Michigan apologized for how it handled the situation.) There is far less public scrutiny over how concussions are treated at practices and in lower-profile NCAA sports.

SEC executive associate commissioner Greg Sankey, whose conference wrote the proposal establishing a safety committee for the Power Five leagues, said he was disappointed the national dialogue before and during the convention turned into efforts to stall the idea.

“People may say this isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a good start,” Sankey said. “The protocol committee can engage on some of the issues with more consideration.”

Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, who favors concussion penalties, believes lawyers and litigation are delaying rules from being put in place.

“I think everyone is trying to make sure whatever goes into place is enforceable and can be done if there’s a penalty structure in place,” McGlade said. “On the one hand, I understand that taking some time. But I don’t think you can take forever.”

Judge wants to see enforcement

The NCAA’s inability to show how it can enforce new return-to-play guidelines was one of many reasons U.S. District Judge John Lee denied preliminary approval for a $75 million settlement between the association and a group of NCAA athletes. Lee wrote that he needs to understand the “range of actions” the NCAA may take against a member for either intentionally or inadvertently failing to comply with terms of the settlement.

“It is unclear, however, whether the NCAA has the authority to mandate that its member schools implement the proposed ‘return-to-play’ policies and what enforcement mechanisms will be in place in the event of noncompliance,” Lee wrote. “Given the wide array of schools that are affiliated with the NCAA, it is reasonable to believe that some schools may face financial or logistical challenges in implementing some of the changes that are proposed.”

Complicating matters to create NCAA concussion rules and penalties is the bureaucracy of the association. The six-person concussion safety committee is only designed at the moment to oversee the Power Five conferences. Hainline, who will serve on the committee, said a parallel process for the rest of Division I will eventually be in place.

The identities of medical professionals on the Power Five committee will be in place by its first meeting on March 9. The ACC’s representative will be prominent University of North Carolina researcher Kevin Guskiewicz, who is heavily involved in concussion studies and has worked on NCAA and NFL committees.

The Big Ten announced in December it will apply penalties for noncompliance of concussion protocol. The conference has not publicly explained how a penalty system will work.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has not been made available to discuss the plans. League spokesman Kerry Kenny said the conference is in the developmental stage of what its enforcement will look like.

Bowlsby said incidents of noncompliance found by the NCAA concussion committee need to have implications.

“The fact is there are places where coaches are making return-to-play decisions and that’s not right,” Bowlsby said. “It’s not right for young people. It’s not right from a competitive standpoint. It’s the wrong approach to it. Those decisions ought to be vested in the hands of medical personnel singularly.”

Bowlsby said the Big 12’s new concussion policy released Wednesday goes beyond what was approved by the Power Five and puts all of the protocols in the hands of trained medical staff. Big 12 members will be “required” to follow the NCAA’s 2014 Inter-Association Consensus Guidelines for Concussion Diagnosis and Management, although it’s not entirely clear what will happen if a Big 12 school is found to be noncompliant.

Big 12 spokesman Bob Burda said like any policy in the conference’s handbook, schools that violate the concussion guidelines will be subject to penalties enforced by Bowlsby. The commissioner has a “wide discretion” in addressing any violations and penalties could include fines, reprimands and suspensions, Burda said.

The Big 12 said its policy ensures that no coach will be the primary supervisor for any medical provider, or have authority to hire or fire any medical provider. Schools are to have on file a team physician-directed concussion management plan as well as specific protocol for evaluating and managing a concussion. The roles of physicians, athletic trainers, physician assistants, neurologists, neuropsychologists and physical therapists will be outlined.

Furthermore, Big 12 players and coaches will be given educational material on concussions and sign a statement confirming they received the information and acknowledge their responsibilities for reporting injuries before every season begins.

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor doesn’t see the need for penalties. Ensor said he expects insurance companies will enforce compliance of the guidelines when underwriting liability policies for schools. Once the standards are established, courts will use the guidelines as a baseline in any litigation around concussions, he said.

“There’s a tendency to think that a penalty will solve the problem,” Ensor explained. “I’ve come to believe we have way too many compliance problems and end up with a lot of paperwork instead of implementing policies in a coherent matter. Invariably, for every rule there are 10 exceptions. If we find out in a year or two there are still gaps, we can always return to rules and enforcement.”

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said even medical professionals do not totally agree on how to best treat concussions. “I believe we should let some time and analysis happen before we figure out what kind of rule structure should be attached to that,” he noted.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco also expressed hesitation over penalties. “If it were becoming a problem, you’d have to look at that,” Aresco said. “But I think at this point our guys are going to be comfortable with the guidelines and making sure we have these protocols in place. But we want to make sure if we can improve on them we will.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said rules without penalties don’t carry a lot of weight. “The flip side is I think our schools are working pretty darn hard on this,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not issues here or there.”

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson noted that the NCAA was created by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 specifically for safety reasons. Thompson’s question: How do you enforce concussion rules in an NCAA that hasn’t been designed to enforce safety the way it tracks amateurism violations?

“Say you noticed in the game a team did this or didn’t do that and the cornerback came back and played in the third quarter,” Thompson began. “What do you do there? You can’t penalize the kid. Do you fine the school? Maybe that’s the only way to get people’s attention.”

Given the amount of medical research and money the NCAA has placed into concussions, there needs to be “teeth” behind guidelines, said McGlade, the A-10 commissioner. The NCAA and Department of Defense are in the first year of a $30 million study evaluating more than 25,000 college athletes to learn about the natural history of concussions.

“If a student-athlete has a concussion and isn’t supposed to compete for four to five days and goes back to competing, the school should be fined and the person is sidelined maybe double the amount,” McGlade said. “It’s like speeding. You get caught and you have to pay a couple hundred bucks. And you know what? You don’t speed.

“At some point in time the medical world, and the NCAA as an oversight organization, has to step in and say, ‘You can agree to disagree, but this is the rule.’ We have it for fighting right now. If it’s deemed a fight, it’s clear: You sit the next game. It doesn’t matter if nobody got hurt.”

In the rabid and cutthroat world of SEC football, Sankey declined to take a position on whether the SEC is open to enforceable concussion rules. Sankey said the concussion safety committee is a “meaningful” start for dialogue about concussion care without too much regulation.

Most campuses are doing great work on concussion care, Sankey said.

Which begs the question: If campuses already do great work, why not apply rules to the work they’re doing?

Noted Sankey: “I would observe if they do great work, why do you need additional regulation?”
author photoJon Solomon is a national college football reporter with Solomon joined CBS in 2014 after covering college football at The Birmingham News/ for eight years. He previously was a Clemson beat writer for The (Columbia, S.C.) State and The Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail.



At this point, it is senseless to attempt to resist any longer: Alex Rodriguez is going to be suiting up for the New York Yankees this season. You can grouse about PEDs, or his salary, or his astounding total inability to generate even one iota of positive press for himself (something we should have realized when this happened), but none of this is going to change the fundamental fact that A-Rod will be a Major League Baseball player again soon.

This shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems. A-Rod essentially waited everybody out. When his suspension went down last year, the general consensus was that A-Rod’s Yankees career — and probably his baseball career in general — was over. After all that, with his game rapidly declining, how could he possibly come back? But the whole time, A-Rod insisted he would return, that he would honor his contract (with the implicit suggestion that the Yankees better do the same), that he just wanted to win another championship, all that business. He dug in. And it worked.

So! Now what? How is this going to go down for A-Rod? He’s playing. He has come a long way to be back in pinstripes. What happens next?

Let’s go through some of the possible scenarios. I think you’ll be surprised. There is the nightmare scenario — that he has zilch left and it’s all over. But I’m not sure that’s the most likely scenario. In almost every one, he’s more valuable than you might think.

He shows up at spring training and can barely pick up a bat. OK, so maybe all the offseason training (with friends!) doesn’t do him any good. It’s always possible that a 39-year-old man who hasn’t played a game since Sept. 25, 2013 (and hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2007) has completely lost the ability to play baseball all together. Let’s say he gets to camp and it’s all gone. (He holds the bat upside down, or every ground ball hits him right in the groin.) Do the Yankees just cut him? Do they try to file some other grievance to get the contract invalidated? One thing we know is that A-Rod won’t give an inch on the $64 million he’s owed. But if A-Rod is completely useless as a player, forget the $64 million: Will the Yankees be able to afford the roster spot? They hardly seem to have the relationship with A-Rod where they could fake some sort of injury. Here’s the only way I see the Yankees truly cutting bait on A-Rod: If there’s just nothing left.

He has a little bit of power left, but that’s it. Thirty-nine years old or not, this is a guy who has hit 654 homers in his career. Baseball is suffering through a rather historic power drought, which means if A-Rod can just run into a few, he has some value. Remember: A-Rod was such a great player that even an A-Rod with large percentages of his abilities sapped is still a better player than most. Even in his depleted, injury-riddled, disaster season of 2013, he hit a home run every 22.28 at-bats, which would have put him in the top 25 in the HR/AB stat last season (ahead of Albert Pujols, Marlon Byrd, Ryan Howard and Buster Posey). Even if A-Rod is a nightmare in the field and can’t catch up to the average fastball, if he can hit, oh, 10 homers (which would be one every 22.2 at-bats at 222 at-bats … a reasonable projection on both sides, considering that’s about as many at-bats Alfonso Soriano had for the Yankees last year), that’s worth something, isn’t it? To have a guy who can hit homers at such a rate coming off the bench, or occasionally DH-ing, that’s an actual positive for a team, no? Think of him as Mark Reynolds, or late-era Jim Thome, or even the last couple of years of Jason Giambi (albeit with the exact opposite effect on a clubhouse). That’s a semi-valuable commodity. Not worth $64 million — or even a hundredth of that — but certainly worth something. If A-Rod shuts up off the field, this could theoretically be a positive.

He can play the field a little, keeps his batting eye and hits like he did in 2012. This makes him an above-average player. He doesn’t have to be a defensive whiz, but if you can spell him at third base and first base without having a Ryan Howard situation on your hands — and if he’s in shape, this is certainly reasonable — he would be a handy player to have hanging around. A guy with a slash line of .272/.353/.430, who can fill in at the corners and DH against lefties? Take away the name “A-Rod” and that’s a guy you want on your team. Only three third basemen (Adrian Beltre, Matt Carpenter and Casey McGehee) had higher OBPs than .353 that last year. Even if A-Rod can’t hit for a ton of power, if he can get on base a little and give the Yankees’ other elderly players a few days off a week, he can be a legitimately important role player for them.

He’s truly resurgent. He’s 39. Well, Barry Bonds hit more than 100 homers after his 39th birthday. (Which is insane.) A-Rod’s playing in a homer happy ballpark with one of the truest home run swings in baseball history. Certainly he has looked done the last couple of years, but he was battling serious injuries those years. By all accounts, he is as healthy as he has been since 2008. (Check out this injury history compiled by Newsday; it’s a wonder he can walk.) If there were ever a player who needed a full year off to mend — whatever the reasons for that year off were — it was A-Rod. So let’s say he’s healthy, and focused, and locked-in. It seems unlikely, but the thing about superstars is that they can do things the rest of us can’t. The two men who have put up the best numbers in baseball over the last 30 years are Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, and only one of them is still playing baseball. So who knows what he might be capable of?

Let’s look at 2004, the season Bonds turned 39. He hit 45 homers that year. (And walked a flabbergasting 239 times. That is only 141 fewer walks than the Royals had last year.) Now, expecting A-Rod to have a season like that is crazy. But what if he has two-thirds of that season? What if he stays healthy and regains more of his power than you would have expected? What if he hits, oh, 35 homers? What if he’s the A-Rod of 2010, who knocked in 125 runs? It’s improbable … but I’ll confess, I find it less improbable than the idea that he has nothing left.

Maybe the hip is still messed up, and this is all an academic exercise. But if A-Rod is healthy — or at least healthier than he has been in five years, something a year off should help out with — I bet he’s a lot better than anybody thinks. We might even, if just for a brief moment, after a flash of the past, a towering drive deep into the Bronx night that brings us back to a time when he was different … we might even remember a time when not everyone on the planet hated the guy. It could happen. It could right well happen.


Email me at, follow me @williamfleitch or just shout out your window real loud, I’ll hear you. Point is, let’s talk.


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