University of Southern California wide receiver Robert Woods — one of college football’s top pass catchers — took a nasty hit in the first quarter of the Trojans’ victory over Utah last Thursday. Woods, who was downfield blocking on a punt return, hit the ground face first after taking a hit to the head. He immediately got to his feet and attempted to head to the sideline — the wrong sideline — before stumbling and collapsing back to the turf:
A play later, Woods was back in the game. That drew an immediate reaction from sports blogs and other reporters — one of whom said on Twitter that he witnessed Woods fail a concussion test (he later said he couldn’t be sure Woods failed). Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote that he was scared for Woods throughout the remainder of the game, and multiple columnists took USC coach Lane Kiffin to task for Woods’ quick return.
Woods, for his part, told reporters this week that while he got “jacked up” and was “kinda like gone” after the hit, he hadn’t felt ill-effects afterward and passed a balance test, a math test (“100 minus 7, minus 7 minus 7 a couple times,” he said), and answered a couple other questions. He was ultimately fine to return, he said. That Woods only answered a few questions before he was deemed fit to return to the game also drew a strong reaction from columnists, and the entire episode has been the subject of sports fodder for several days now.
A criticism I haven’t seen, however, is that the NCAA doesn’t have a standard procedure for evaluating potential concussions on the sidelines. The NCAA does have a standard policy for players who can be immediately diagnosed with a concussion, and it mandates all schools have a “concussion management plan” for such players. What it doesn’t seem to have is a standard process outlining exactly how players like Woods should be evaluated. Here’s what the NCAA Football Rulebook says about concussion evaluation:
CONCUSSIONS—Coaches and medical personnel should exercise caution in the treatment of a student-athlete who exhibits signs of a concussion. See Appendix C for detailed information.
Appendix C adds a list of symptoms commonly associated with concussions. It says (emphasis theirs) “athlete who exhibits signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion, either at rest or during exertion, should be removed immediately from practice or competition and should not return to play until cleared by an appropriate health care professional.” Here is section 3 of Appendix C, the most relevant part of the rulebook for situations like Woods':
Allow the student-athlete to return to play only with permission from a health care professional with experience in evaluating for concussion. Allow athletics medical staff to rely on their clinical skills and protocols in evaluating the athlete to establish the appropriate time to return to play. A return-to-play progression should occur in an individualized, step-wise fashion with gradual increments in physical exertion and risk of contact. Follow your institution’s physician supervised concussion management protocol.
None of this is meant to demonize the NCAA, which has been proactive in recent years about protecting football players from head injuries. For that, it deserves credit. But it seems, in the wake of the Woods case, that rather than leaving the process up to each individual school, standardizing the process for evaluating and diagnosing a player who may or may not have suffered a concussion would be another step in the right direction (the NCAA, when it mandated concussion management plans, recommended minimum evaluation techniques but does not appear to have standardized them).
I am hopeful that USC’s training staff took the necessary steps to evaluate Robert Woods before he went back into the game (USC, as Kiffin noted, has a fairly cautious record on serious injuries). But letting medical professionals develop a standard evaluation procedure — or implementing pieces or all of the standard recommended procedures that have been developed — would go a long way toward removing any doubt about when, and if, players like Woods should return to the field.