Football can’t expect players to be honest about head injuries

The only surprise is that it’s a surprise.

Football can continue to make its rules and add the threat of penalty or worse to those who break them. It can keep cracking down on aggressive hits to the head and neck while trying to create as strong a culture of safety as it can to a violent, merciless game.

What it can’t do is control the human condition.

It might be able to protect the brain.

It can’t dictate the reactions one provides.

“If you play the game, you’re going to get knocked around pretty good,” said Jim Fassel, former NFL Coach of the Year with the New York Giants and now Las Vegas resident since coaching the Locomotives here in the defunct United Football League. “You’re going to get hit in the head. You tell yourself it’s not that bad because you want to be out there playing. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some players aren’t always honest about what they’re feeling.”

According to a recent study, a lot of players.

Researchers at Harvard and Boston University discovered that for every 27 college players suspected of having a concussion, 26 go unreported, in large part because players are not forthcoming about their symptoms.

Offensive linemen are reportedly the worst about admitting being hurt.

The ratio of diagnosed concussions to suspected concussions and dings for the beefy guys up front: 32-1.

Another number from the study about those lovable lugs: Offensive linemen suffer 62 percent more suspected concussions and 52 percent more dings than other positions.

I don’t know why anyone would believe such numbers might cause us pause, not when you are talking about a game in which toughness is painted as a necessary trait from the time most players first learn how to fasten a pair of shoulder pads.

From a young age, football is defined as a game in which the best play hurt and one’s physical well being is secondary to a specific moment or snap at hand. It is a way of life built on the premise that those who are weak fail, one that often directly, and most all the time subconsciously, tells a young man to play through injury and not seek help from doctors or trainers.

Which puts the onus even more on those entrusted with keeping players safe.

It’s not easy playing football at high levels now. It’s really not easy playing defense. It’s impossible to know the best and right way to tackle anymore. New rules have made it so you can’t hit an opponent high for fear of making contact with his helmet, and you debate hitting him low for fear of blowing out his knee.

It’s also impossible to know when a player is telling the truth about being injured.

Fassel was coach at the University of Utah in the mid-to-late 1980s and remembers a game at Arizona State when his quarterback got dinged and stumbled to the sideline. The doctors examined him, went to Fassel and said they didn’t think the kid was being honest about how he felt.

“So I went over and started asking him questions. Things like the score and where we were. He was a little foggy. So then I asked him about certain plays, what his reads would be, how many steps his drop would be. He was foggy on those. I then told him to take a walk with me. He stumbled getting up. I told the doctors, ‘He’s done. Period.’ We had two games left that season, and he didn’t play in either of them.

“It has to be a collective effort between coaches and trainers and doctors. Coaches can ask players questions about the game that doctors wouldn’t know. When I was with the New York Giants, we had four to five doctors on the sideline, eight to 10 trainers and 15 coaches. Between all those people, you should have enough eyes on the game to know when a guy gets dinged and needs to come out.”

Such a failure occurred at Michigan, where school officials acknowledged the athletic department made mistakes while dealing with quarterback Shane Morris’ head injury during a 30-14 loss to Minnesota on Sept. 27 in Ann Arbor.

The reason: A serious lack of communication by those on the sideline.

That can’t happen in 2014. Not when players admit being dishonest. Not when such a study is that one-sided when it comes to young men putting their health at risk to continue playing.

“I’ve had double knee replacements, and all sorts of people have wanted me to join lawsuits concerning injuries, but I knew as a player what I was getting myself into,” said the 65-year old Fassel, who played quarterback at the college and pro levels. “The minute you put the helmet on, you know the risk. I’ve got no one to blame but myself.

“But that doesn’t mean between a coaching staff and doctors and everyone else, they shouldn’t all be looking out for every player on that field. As a head coach, the blame falls on you always. But I can also see where things are missed, given how much is happening during a game. Kids are going to want to play. They’re told to be tough. It has to be on others to protect them.”

It’s a fascinating study.

The only surprise is that it’s a surprise.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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