The Academic Considerations of Conference Realignment

The schools currently at the heart of conference realignment news and rumors are large public institutions, most with operating budgets of a billion dollars or more and enrollment figures in the tens of thousands.  The decision and follow-through required to move one of these schools to a new conference is made by presidents, chancellors, trustees, and government officials, all of whom have distinct personal beliefs and agendas in steering their entrusted institution.  Getting beyond personal bias and mission interpretation, there are some more tangible academic factors when it comes to changing conferences. 

Networking

Even in the internet age, personal proximity builds relationships, and that’s as true for college administrators as it is in any other profession.  Conference discussions require the participation of presidents and chancellors from each member institution, which not only provides opportunity to discuss all matters of running a university, but can spark ideas for educational collaboration.  This is only helped when a realignment candidate has weak bonds with national organizations and is entering a conference with better geographical cohesion and proximal partner schools.  Major grants from the NSF, NIH, DOE, NEH, and other federal funders look favorably on multi-school proposals, so the concept of collaboration isn’t ephemeral by any stretch. 

Admissions and Instruction

An institute’s academic quality is tied to the quality of its students.   Put roughly, a prominent football program will impact this connection by directly leading to an increase in admissions applications and improving median metrics such as SAT/ACT scores and entering GPA, but won’t suddenly make a school more competitive with upper echelon students.  It’s also a reality that high-level athletes often have academic backgrounds, strengths, and goals that aren’t conducive to excelling in higher education, and needs of ethnic and cultural association that can go unnourished on the modern Division 1 campus.  With this in mind, competing in a conference stacked with talented teams might be made easier by lowering admissions standards, cutting curriculum requirements, or (more drastically) by altering the school’s academic offerings. 

Lowering admissions standards (or maintaining while peer institutions elevate requirements) doesn’t seem to have a tremendous impact on overall admissions quality, but it does require more faculty and tutor support to keep student athletes enrolled and progressing.  Conversely, eliminating a first-year math requirement might lead to having a redundant cadre of math instructors, or take away a teaching opportunity for grad students.  And when it comes to changing core curricula, the effort is a massive undertaking that brings with it a host of side effects.  For this reason, structural changes such as adding degrees and minors can be aided by football-minded reasoning, but rarely initiated by it.  Georgia Tech, for example, could never have instituted its expansion of liberal arts offerings as a way of attracting football players; that said, if these efforts to attract the female students needed to stay relevant in higher ed also improve recruiting, then it’s a winning situation for everyone (with the exception, perhaps, of nostalgic alumni.)

Faculty Retention

Most public schools generally have some low-level grumbling among faculty regarding the “beer and circus” environment (to use Murray Sperber’s phrase) of their employing institution.  Conference realignment has a way of magnifying this discontent, which can cause subtle, long-term problems.  Retaining key faculty (and recruiting new ones) is important to an institution’s academic rankings and performance, especially since faculty are the ones who pay for their research by writing grant proposals that bring millions of dollars into school coffers every year.  Faculty are a bit like recruits–it’s important to snag and keep the 4 and 5 stars.  Even your average liberal arts department can have several salaries offset every year by grants.  Lower-level adjunct faculty constitute a vital resource since their positions are relatively low-paying, which limits schools’ abilities to reach beyond the immediate community for employees. 

Tenured and tenure-track faculty rarely leave over sports-related environmental issues (full-blown meltdowns of corruption such as seen at Georgia and more recently UNC being the exception), but they will get their peers to consider staying away.  When these educators perceive that a school is losing its focus on education in favor of entertainment, the result can be human resource difficulties as they begin airing their discontent through professional networks and publications, and in public outlets like editorial sections.  The Methusulas who’ve outlasted football coaches, presidents, and even buildings on campus can have enough pull to turn their academic concerns into full-blown PR problems. 

As far as retaining adjuncts, I’ve heard stories from colleagues and administrators about the pressures that can come with teaching first- and second-year student athletes, and in particular the pressure to keep them elligible.  Considering that these educators essentially prep thousands of less-prepared first-year students for college, losing them to local newspapers and high schools seems to have the potential to cause problems with student progression, though I’m not aware of any research on the matter. 

Fundraising

For the schools involved in realignment rumors, football programs are their public faces and the embodiment of school pride.  An exciting football program can improve donations from prospective donors in every facet of university operations (the effect seems to be more of factor for programs that are new on the scene), and almost always serves as a concurrent marketing campaign for the university as a whole.  Success in football also brings in non-alumni donors and boosters, starting with the average ticket buyer and going all the way up to the families who have buildings named after them.  Non-alums are important not just for the absolute value of their money (most of which goes towards athletics), but because they free-up alumni to support academic expenses including the endowed professorships and maintenance endowments that are critical to operating costs manageable.  And given the aging of the general population, many years of stewarding donors towards making large planned gifts will be reaching fruition or falling apart in the near future. 

With the current economic conditions, slashed state budgets, and what seems to be mounting public backlash towards the expense of attending college, having a self-perpetuating asset base is extremely important.  These factors are why Florida State’s awkward public flirting with the Big 12 seems so strange.  It probably deserves a series of articles, but FSU is about to publicly kick-off a billion dollar fundraising campaign; they’re probably already a good ways towards this goal, but not enough to go public.  Given that their budget’s been annually cut by the Florida state legislature since FY 2007-2008, this is a pretty important fundraising effort.  A successful campaign needs to demonstrate the university’s leadership and potential enough to help stanch the bleeding.  Meanwhile, the Big 12 overtures are revealing hot-headed leaders, emphasizing how far the football program’s fallen, and embarrassing the athletics department.  If the campaign opens with FSU still firmly stuck in the ACC, I think a lot of development people are going to be paying attention.

Concussions and Youth Football

Over the past month, I’ve reported on several lectures given by prominent concussion researchers; you can read my earlier pieces on these sessions here:

Part 1:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/football-and-brain-injury/

Part 2:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/helmet-research-at-virginia-tech/

The most recent lecture focused on youth concussions, and was given by Dr. Mariecken Fowler, a prominent neurologist, researcher, and regional resource on concussions in western Virginia.  This final piece addresses Dr. Fowler’s points along with all the youth-focused topics that came-up during prior presentations.

Helmet Research and Concussion Prevention

Let’s return to Dr. Stefan Duma’s helmet research at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics (CIB).  In addition to studying college players, Duma has also studied helmet impacts with a local youth team.  Seven players (aged 7-8) were monitored through the course of the season.  While the number of subjects monitored is low (and the results confined to one team), the findings are worth knowing, and will likely be corroborated as the number of youth teams monitored increases.  First, the VT team recorded several instances of high acceleration that came disturbingly close to approaching the levels obtained by college players.  This is possible because, while the youth players don’t reach the speeds of higher-level squads, they have far less muscle mass and control to dampen impact acceleration.  Several of the high-g tackles Duma showed involved the players getting tackled from the side or behind.  The acceleration came from the players’ heads shaking, to use Duma’s phrase, like bobble-head dolls.

Picture of the youth football team monitored by Virginia Tech researchers, with insets showing the custom-built Six Degrees of Freedom accelerometer system (photo courtesy Virginia Tech.)

Second, the youth players received more head impacts than expected.  Why?  Because youth players not only act like bobble-head dolls, but they’re roughly built like them.  Children have proportionally larger heads than adults, and their helmets are built to adult proportions, which makes them even larger targets and harder to keep stable.  Essentially, the helmets occupy so much space that it’s difficult for a child to tackle or block without a helmet strike (which is usually helmet-to-helmet) and difficult to control the extra helmet mass when it’s in motion.

Third, the head impacts—especially hard ones—occurred mostly during practice.  The paper published from this research noted that 76% of +40g hits and 100% of +80g hits were practice hits; these hits generally also involved the higher levels of rotational acceleration Duma’s team found.  Even when comparing a single average practice to a single average game, 15% more head hits occurred during an average practice.  This is in distinct contrast to high school, college, and pro football, where the worst hits occur on gameday, and reflects the play style of youth leagues.  Youth football games involve lots of lateral movement and angle tackling, and relatively few “lined-up” hits made with a full head of steam.  Practice drills, though, frequently involve running-start tackling and blocking drills that produce greater impact speeds.  A related trend is the greater percentage of hits to the side of the head relative to higher levels of play.  This is largely due to the prominence of angled tackles into the sides of players; these hits also increase the likelihood of a tackled player bouncing the side of his head against the ground at the end of the tackle.

The CIB team and observers from other schools offer some guidelines for limiting hard hits in youth football:

  • Make sure helmets are properly inflated so that they can effectively distribute impacts.
  • Teach head-up hitting on offense and defense, which places the head in a strong position and limits movement during collisions.
  • Reduce full-speed, running-start tackling and shedding drills—particularly head-on drills—during practice, and instead focus on slower, single-player drills that reinforce fundamentals.

I’d hypothesize that bracing and controlled tumbles might improve players’ abilities to counteract head forces, though there’s no evidence to back this up (it may very well be that youth players don’t have the proprioceptive development to benefit from such drills.)

One more point comes from UNC’s Kevin Guskiewicz, who conducts helmet research and advises the NFL.  He comments that preventing children from playing youth leagues may set them up for greater risk if they play on varsity and junior varsity football teams later in life.  This is because inexperienced players lack tensing and safety skills that are developed in youth football.

When Prevention Isn’t Enough

When concussions happen, immediate recognition is essential.  This isn’t possible without a safety-minded approach.  Coaches, parents, and attending medical professionals should investigate big hits and hits that involve players’ heads whipping or rapidly rotating.  A player who’s gotten his or her “bell rung” has had a minor concussion, so make sure you take kids through an appropriate concussion questionnaire after big hits.  To make sure these steps happen, all coaches should be educated on concussions, even if a medical professional is available.  Though this isn’t a replacement for a thorough training series on concussions, the CDC recommends coaches to suspect a player of having a concussion if the child:

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Is confused about assignment or position
  • Forgets an instruction
  • Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (even briefly)
  • Shows mood, behavior, or personality changes
  • Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Can’t recall events after hit or fall

If it seems a concussion has occurred, pull the player from the practice or game, and find a calm location to place them until they can be taken to a doctor.  If a parent isn’t on-hand, the child should be supervised by a medical staffer or coach until the parent can arrive.  Follow-up care is critical; Dr. Mariecken Fowler of Winchester Neurological Consultants notes that problems can arise when children are evaluated and cleared to play by doctors unfamiliar with concussions (included were troubling incidents involving fringe specialists clearing children far too early.)  It’s also routine now for victims of head injuries to receive precautionary scans to rule-out undetected vascular issues that could arise from trauma.

If you’re a parent and notice acute headaches, nausea, irritability, or mood swings that occur unexpectedly after a practice or a game, you may be witnessing the effects of a concussion.  These symptoms may arise days after the responsible blow; latent symptoms are triggered by things like intense thought (e.g., while taking a test), stress, or physical activity.  Since there are severe, evidence-backed risks involving repeated head blows following a concussion, it’s imperative to make sure your children receive medical attention after a suspected undiagnosed concussion.  This best-known example of this is the case of Zackery Lystedt, a middle school player who received multiple hits during a single game that had him fading in-and-out of a coma for three months, and left him severely disabled.  It’s an extreme example, but illustrates what can happen when mild trauma is worsened by additional damage.

Following the occurrence of a concussion (or likely occurrence of one), the affected child must be rested.  No physical or mental stress can be allowed.  Individuals under the age of 21 are most susceptible to problems with repeated head trauma.  Dr. Fowler notes that sleeping and watching television are two of the safest activities possible.  Sleeping in particular promotes recovery; unfortunately, insomnia can be a side-effect of concussions, which may warrant the use of sedatives.  Concussions may also magnify (or even trigger) depression and impulsive decisions, so it’s probably advisable for parents to monitor their children and keep them out of stimulating environments.   Fowler emphasized this point when recounting the story of a teen who committed suicide while staying active within a few days of receiving a concussion.  While an anecdotal case, the teen’s history was free of mental illness symptoms or prior stressors other than the concussion, which hints strongly that the injury was related to his death.

Fortunately, technology is helping improve concussion diagnoses.  A software suite of note is ImPACT (IMmediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing).  You can think of ImPACT as a computerized combination of quizzes and rudimentary video games.  Athletes using ImPACT participate in a pre-season session with the program where they complete a battery of memory and reaction tests.  These pre-season tests serve as baseline measurements.  When players are later suspected of having had a concussion, they are run through the test again; if the second batch of results shows significantly worse brain function, it’s highly likely the athlete has sustained a concussion.  Follow-up tests are administered, and when results have returned to baseline, the player is cleared for a return to sport.

ImPACT isn’t perfect.  It first requires recognition of a concussion or preemptive action on a threatening hit.  There is also chance that intentional “sandbagging” during baseline testing can throw-off later results, though the depth of the test and the player’s inability to know the metrics and scoring probably nullify this aspect.  The biggest limitation by far, though, is cost.  Organizations such as the NFL and Dick’s Sporting Goods have helped pay for youth football safety measures; Fowler remarked that in her geographical area in northwestern Virginia the largest regional healthcare provider agreed to purchase a license and a number of uses (ImPACT works on a pay-per-test model) after a bit of lobbying by concerned locals.  My recommendation is that working with public health systems (or badgering/guilting them into helping) is probably the approach with the greatest chances of success.

Much like imaging diagnostics are improving to the point where we may be able to catch CTE in living subjects, they are also improving in concussion detection.  Fowler believes an MRI technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging may be able to exactly diagnose concussions in the near future.  Of course, this will be cost-hobbled as well due to the expense of MRI machinery, though not in a way easily impacted by worried parents (unless some of those parents are philanthropic millionaires.)

For more information, the CDC provides a thorough, sport-focused look at concussions: http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/sports/index.html

USA Football is a good resource for football-specific information:  http://www.usafootball.com/health-safety/videos-and-downloads

Quantifying Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish are back in the news for their now-routine “will they or won’t they?” spot in conference realignment talks. While it’s presented as a given that their massive national fanbase (coupled with their historical resiliency and well-regarded academics) makes ND a jewel in the eyes of many conferences, evidence supporting this statement isn’t often supplied.   Here are some of the recent stats and rankings that help fuel the university’s perception (both positive and negative) by the general public:

$112 million:  Forbes’ estimated value of the Notre Dame football team in 2011, which is second only to Texas.

1.5 million:  Television viewership for the 2011 Notre Dame/Air Force game, which was the lowest rated game in ND’s history.

80,795:  Average home game attendance for ND in 2011, good for 14th in the nation.

19: US News and World Report’s ranking of Notre Dame in 2011.

$5,340,685,000:  2010 value of Notre Dame’s endowment.

1:  Bloomberg Businessweek ranking of ND’s undergraduate business program.

2.26 million:  Notre Dame fanbase as estimated by the New York Times; this ranks fourth behind Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State.

676,245:  NYT estimate on the combined number of Notre Dame fans in New York City, Chicago, and Boston; each city is ahead of ND’s hometown of South Bend in terms of fan numbers.

25:  National ranking in terms of faculty salaries per Academe magazine.

11:  Ranking of all ND merchandise sales by the Collegiate Licensing Company, which is ahead of CLC clients like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Tennessee, but behind established powers like Alabama,  Texas, Michigan, and North Carolina.

$2.4 million:  Money paid to current head football coach Brian Kelly in FY 2010.

$2.1 million:   Money paid to former head football coach Charlie Weis in FY 2010.

11:  Claimed National Titles.

2:  Bowl wins since 1995.

Bill Stewart (1952 – 2012)

Stewart will be remembered most for his turbulent turns as a head coach.  The low points include his three-year post at Virginia  Military Institute, where he was forced to resign over using a racial slur with a player, and his slightly longer tenure leading West Virginia University, which ended with him being forced to resign after trying to smear the reputation of his designated successor.  On the other hand, while an interim coach he led WVU to an upset win over a vaunted Oklahoma squad in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, which ultimately netted him the WVU job.  Even his dismal stay at VMI is notable in one positive regard, as he hired current Pittsburgh Steelers’ HC Mike Tomlin to his first coaching job.

Those who knew and worked with Stewart seemed to have difficulty believing that such a man was capable of achieving these career extremes.  The lows contradicted the affable and relaxed posture he maintained in public and private life.  The highs (particularly the Fiesta win and his subsequent promotion to unequivocal head coach) seemed beyond the reach of a journeyman coach who’d spent most of his career bouncing between a dozen assistant gigs with various colleges and CFL teams.  Whatever the seeming contradictions, Stewart was responsible for some of the strongest memories in the history of Mountaineer football.

Helmet Research at Virginia Tech

Note: This piece follows-up on my earlier overview of concussion research:  http://secondlevelfootball.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/football-and-brain-injury/

The Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics (CIB) is one of the most impressive injury research institutions around.  While it’s best known for studies performed by the Virginia Tech branch on football helmets, the Center is a diverse operation.  The bulk of the VT head injury office’s floor-space is actually devoted to classified military research, mainly related to vehicle crashes and IED impacts.  The institute also studies the safety of civilian vehicles in crashes and the safety of children’s toys; the Wake Forest portion conducts a great deal of automotive work.

The CIB operates from within the VT-WF School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.  Running the school is Dr. Stefan Duma, who also happens to be the man responsible for kick-starting modern helmet research and making it a topic of public interest.  Duma has co-authored hundreds of papers on impact injuries; his work has lately included research on head impacts in baseball players, how organs are affected by crashes, and how vehicle-related impacts affect pregnant women.  Duma has also been the key force behind the rapid growth and rising prominence of biomedical engineering at VT.

Almost all of his head-safety projects (as well as those of the faculty, staff, and students beneath him) are funded either by the National Institutes of Health, which is a federal organization that awards research grants to promising health projects, or the Department of Defense.  The Center for Injury Biomechanics takes no money from the companies whose products are researched; even speaking fees are donated to youth football programs for the purpose of buying safer helmets.

Monitoring Player Impacts

Virginia Tech’s work in the field of helmet safety can be broken into two parts—lab experiments and fieldwork.  The fieldwork ramped-up shortly after Duma’s arrival in 2000.  Since there was little data on what happened on the college football field with regard to helmet impacts, that was where work needed to start.  The first major step was outfitting 38 Hokies with HITS, or Head Impact Telemetry System, which is an electronics suite manufactured by Simbex.

Helmet Impact Telemetry System; the piece at lower-left is the helmet sensor suite.  Image courtesy Simbex.

HITS includes both computerized impact-reporting devices consisting of helmet sensors and the sideline computers that monitor the helmet sensors.  The helmet sensors are simple accelerometers that measure linear and rotational impacts.  They’re housed in a flexible plastic strip that also contains a battery and WiFi transmitter.  The strip mounts inside a player’s helmet, where it fits between the side and crown cushions.

The collected data is wirelessly transmitted to a laptop computer on the sideline where it’s not only stored for later analysis, but also used for real-time monitoring of how hard (and where on their heads) players are getting hit.  You’ll see images and TV footage of the computer being carted around inside a formidable looking crate packed with black egg crate cushioning (included in the image above), and you’ll also see all of it–computers and carrying crate–contained within a clear, rainproof plastic housing that looks like it could double as protection for the Pope.  HITS also includes pagers that medical staff can wear to receive instant alerts on high-g impacts.

The entire VT team is being monitored by HITS, as are the teams for several other schools.  This means nearly every single hit experienced by thousands of players across the country has been pooled and analyzed.  The upshot is that undiagnosed concussions have been greatly reduced in teams using the equipment, perhaps to the point of being eliminated.

In my previous post I mentioned how a Tech player stayed on the field after receiving a concussion.  The player was Brandon Manning in 2003; despite the concussion, he not only stayed on the field but led the Hokies with 16 tackles in the game.  Since Manning stayed in the game, the concussion went unnoticed by trainers. Manning himself didn’t think enough of the hit to report it.

Thanks to HITS, Tech researchers/trainers are now notified immediately when any player’s head receives an impact acceleration at or near concussion-levels.  When this happens, the player is immediately pulled from the practice or game for an evaluation—the system is even fast enough to routinely have players pulled from the field between plays.  Its main limitation is signal problems encountered by players at the edges of the endzone.

Testing Helmets in the Lab

When enough impact data was collected, it was time to test helmets in the lab.  This required that many varieties of adult football helmets be subjected to controlled impact testing.  As the picture below shows, the process isn’t too different from using a crash test dummy in a car.  The testing device is called a drop tower, and consists of a dummy head fixed to a vertical frame, which itself is fixed to an impact platform.  Helmets (without facemasks) are fixed to the dummy head and dropped from various heights and with various parts of the helmet shell hitting the platform.

Drop tower prior to helmet-mounting; standing at right is Stefan Duma. Image courtesy Virginia Tech.

The ability of the helmets to dampen various blows is measured and applied to probability data collected from the thousands of actual impacts recorded in on-the-field testing.  This mix of helmet resilience and risk data is called STAR, or Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk.  Fittingly, the helmets are judged on a “star” scale, with 5-star helmets providing the most protection against severe acceleration, and helmets with fewer stars performing less-well as the stars are reduced.

The results of these tests are made publicly available at http://www.sbes.vt.edu/nid.  The first batch of results ran counter to the expectations of some, particularly in terms of helmet cost and intent.  First, higher cost didn’t necessarily correlate to greater impact reduction—several 4-star helmets cost less than a similarly priced helmet that was demonstrated to be the worst tested.  Second, as a few coaches at the Duma presentation I attended noted, several helmets marketed at skill positions showed better safety performance measures than some helmets marketed for use by players in the box.

Research Limitations

There are some limitations to what the CIB is doing with researching helmet safety and concussions.  Their goal is reducing high-risk head collisions either by improving helmet safety or reducing practices that lead to high-risk head collisions.  It’s important to realize that their work is informed by well-documented research on acute brain injuries.  While they’re certainly creating data that’ll be useful in measuring long-term health outcomes of concussions, we don’t have enough information to really understand the risk factors.  The CIB researchers also aren’t in the position of commenting on the long-term effect of sub-concussive impacts.  That’s the realm of epidemiologists and clinical neurologists, not biomechanics and engineering folks.  I think the smart money is that the CIB’s work is going to improve long-term outcomes for football players across the country, but that’s still far from proven.

More specifically, we have to understand that the end result of their work will not be a concussion-proof helmet.  Creating a helmet that would allow for the game to continue being played as-is while also being impervious to concussions is beyond our current technology.  The CIB’s helmet safety guidelines are creating helmets that are better at distributing impact energy, which will reduce head acceleration in properly tensed and positioned players.  Even the highest-rated helmet isn’t of much help in unexpected hits where there’s no muscular tension and skeletal alignment to resist impacts, or in angled hits that the human body has difficulty opposing.

Finally, the team is working on refining its testing methods.  They plan to further investigate the ability of helmets to reduce rotational forces, to test helmet differences at varying temperatures that might alter the properties of the helmet shell and cushion, and possibly to include tests with facemasks.  I doubt any of these refinements would significantly change STAR results–the variables have a measure of theoretical and statistical predictability–though more data is never a bad thing.

Looking Ahead

Because I thought it deserved its own space, I’ll talk about VT’s youth football research (and youth safety issues in general) in a later post.

What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Football and Brain Injury

With the recent deaths of Ray Easterling and Junior Seau, and the prominence of head-shots within the Saints bounty scandal, football-related brain injuries have returned to the news.  Unfortunately for the general public, these reports don’t contain much useful information on the injuries and their causes, diagnoses, and treatments.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to listen  and speak to Dr. Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech and Dr. Jeffrey Barth of the University of Virginia, both of whom are leaders in the field of head injury research.  Duma leads the most sophisticated head injury research facility in the country, and also leads the program that monitors head impacts received by VT players during games and practices.  Barth is a member of the NFL Players Association Concussion Committee and co-wrote a study that first put concussions in the public spotlight back in the 80’s.

Comparison of healthy brain tissue to that of a football player and a boxer; slide courtesy J. Barth..

Though the media is focused on repeated blows to the head (and reasonably so), it’s important to note that a single concussion can be extremely harmful.   A concussion is an injury to the brain caused by sudden acceleration.  A common technical term for a concussion is “mild traumatic brain injury,” which highlights its potential seriousness.  Athletes in many sports often play through mild concussions; Dr. Duma showed one clip of a former Virginia Tech linebacker who suffered a concussion during a play, stayed on the field, and nearly started the next play lined-up at deep safety before a teammate redirected him back to the box.  This was in the early days of the program when guidelines were still being established; a player at VT (and other schools with helmet-safety programs) in this situation today wouldn’t return to the field.

Concussions can cause disorientation, nausea, head pain, light sensitivity, unconsciousness, insomnia, mood changes, and memory loss.  The acute effects of a concussion last on average between 5 and 10 days.  Longer-term symptoms generally clear within three months, though extreme examples can last for years.  Children generally take longer to recover.  The typical concussion occurs when the head experiences around 100 g-force of acceleration (or 100 times the acceleration of earth’s gravity).  As a comparison, an amateur boxer’s dominant-hand hook can create about 80 g of head acceleration.

An average player at Virginia Tech will have four incidents of  circa-100 g head acceleration every season.  Interestingly, out of the entire team only about four actual concussions are diagnosed annually, while the rest of VT athletics reports around 26 concussions during the same period.  This speaks to the variability of concussion susceptibility, and also to football players’ ability to tense their bodies in ways that dampen impact forces.  Additionally, Duma notes that his research has lead to VT and other schools to adopt safer helmets and reduce or eliminate drills that lead to excessive head impacts.  Barth noted that rather than follow his committee’s recommended practice guidelines (which would reduce helmeted practices by roughly three-fourths), the NFL ownership installed rules that halved helmeted practices.

Concussions occur because both the head and the brain are each flexibly tethered, and both can independently whip about on impact, causing the sudden acceleration and deceleration responsible for concussions.  We know this movement can actually rip apart the connective links of brain cells, though beyond that we’re less certain about what else happens within the brain during and after a concussion.  We do know that having one concussion increases your risk of having another by 3-to-6 times, though we aren’t sure if this means certain people are simply prone to concussions, or if having one concussion increases your sensitivity to future brain trauma.  This increased risk is especially important to know because having a second concussion (even a minor one) during the acute phase of a prior trauma can lead to serious complications.  The only proven form of concussion recovery is rest and time.

Getting more into the controversy of football and head injuries, we don’t know how to define or quantify the effects of repeated concussions or repeated sub-concussion blows to the head.  It seems that repeated blows can trigger chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a condition that causes both brain deterioration and the harmful accumulation of defective tau protein in the brain.  Symptoms of CTE include chronic and worsening dementia-like memory and cognition loss, as well as depression, aggression, loss of motor control, and disorientation/confusion.  The symptoms generally appear late in a player’s life, though tau deposits are now being found in the brains of middle-aged men, active NFL players, and even teenagers who’ve had multiple concussions.  Over a dozen former NFL/college players have been diagnosed, and if media reports are to be believed, Easterling and Seau both displayed behavioral symptoms consistent with CTE.  Compared to the entire league, this is still a very small sample, which makes it difficult to determine just how frequently CTE occurs.

At the moment, CTE can only be diagnosed by post-mortem examination of the brain.  The Boston Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that’s frequently referenced in media reports is among the best known institutions performing these examinations, and has done so on the brains of several NFL players.  Dr. Barth notes that Siemens’ healthcare division claims to be 18 months away from deploying PET scan technology capable of detecting CTE in living patients; while PET equipment isn’t nearly as common in hospitals as MRI and CT equipment, it’s a step in the right direction.

Our limited understanding of the brain and impacts is very cloudy.  It may turn out that only a small, definable subset of the 5 million adults, teens, and children currently playing football will ever be at risk for severe and/or long-term brain injury.  Or it may turn out we’re experiencing a sport-related epidemic of lasting brain injury.  We just don’t know.  In this situation, knee-jerk fears can give rise to sham treatments and unwise practices, while apathy can dampen efforts to learn more and create healthier practices.  As Dr. Barth consistently reinforces, we need to be comfortable with the ambiguity of this subject while working towards resolving it.

Junior Seau (1969 – 2012)

While he was feared and admired among his peers like few others during his time in the league, the anecdote I remember when I think of Seau is actually about rehab. It was from a Sports Illustrated article, and it documented a rehab session for a hamstring injury. His trainer was putting him through a series of exercises–multiple sets of machine-based leg curls, which can be painful enough when you’re healthy–and he commented that he couldn’t believe just how intense Seau was in rehab. “The Tasmanian Devil” was fearsome and focused even when injured.

I know there are discussions his death will likely engender (and should engender, if the details hold-up), though that’s a topic for another time.

Don Faurot, Option Inventor

The roots of the Flexbone attacks seen in today’s Georgia Tech and Navy teams can be directly traced back to the work of Missouri University coach Don Faurot and his Split-T offense.  The same can be said for all Wishbone, Veer, and other option-heavy offenses.  Faurot’s biggest contributions were widening the T-formation and then “optioning” defensive players, which allowed for a fast, flanking attack.

Coach Faurot diagrams the option-pass play.

Faurot was a high school star in football, baseball, and basketball—no easy feat, and even more impressive considering he’d lost two fingers during a childhood farming mishap.  He had already been coaching college football almost twenty years when the idea of the option play struck him.  His inspiration was basketball, more specifically the defender’s dilemma during a two-on-one break.  A proper two-on-one essentially forces the defender into making a mistake.  Barring a screw-up by the players on the break, the defender has to leave someone open for an easy bucket.

Transferring this idea to football required an unusual approach: leaving a high-threat defender intentionally unblocked and then running right at him.  If the defender (usually a defensive end) went for the quarterback, the QB would toss the ball to a trailing running back.  If the defender went for the running back, the QB had a clear path upfield.  While the optioned defender was left in a bind, his teammates weren’t much better off, since the tight end on that side was free to block a linebacker or DB.

Split-T Option: The right-side defensive end is being optioned; the dotted line indicated the option toss if the end tackles the QB.

Faurot also had two plays that specifically complemented the option play.  First, Faurot had a basic fullback dive that went straight up the gut while the rest of the backs carried out an option fake.  The dive prevented the defense from loading-up the edges.  Second, if the deep defenders rushed the line of scrimmage without respecting the pass, Faurot could call an option-pass that looked nearly identical to the option play, but had the halfback throw downfield after taking the toss.  Finally, the option play faked the fullback dive and had its tightends fly downfield to block, so the three combined plays looked almost identical just after the snap.  That little fake dive ultimately evolved into part of today’s veer and triple pitch-option plays where the fullback can actually be a ball carrier.

MU's Option play in action; the QB has just tossed the ball (under the arrow) while being tackled by the defensive end.

While Faurot had tinkered with the Split-T during practices at Missouri, it didn’t become public until the absence of a good throwing QB forced him to employ it.  This was in 1941, and it nearly led him to an opening day victory over Paul Brown’s Ohio State squad.  Faurot’s teams frequently led the country in rushing and achieved several top-10 finishes that helped reinvigorate the entire MU athletic program.