The NCAA has recently started touting a “continued commitment” towards concussion safety. But ahead of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday night, a new investigation has exposed a dangerous hole in the NCAA’s concussion policy: A player can be disqualified from playing football by one school due to concussions, and then recruited by another.
According to STAT News, the NCAA has set no limits on the number of permissible concussions. Rather, it’s up to each university to decide when an athlete should be medically disqualified.
“We are not at a place in society generally, and the NCAA in particular, to state that there is a universal bar that everyone must adhere to regarding ability to play,” Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said in the report.
A.J. Long, a former quarterback at Syracuse who was featured in STAT’s story, was disqualified from play at Syracuse when he suffered a third concussion. After colliding with a defensive linemen who weighed 100 pounds more than he did, Long woke up the next morning unable to tolerate any light at all. He remained isolated in his apartment for the next six days with a pounding headache.
However, just a couple of months later he was declared healthy by the Jefferson concussion institute in Philadelphia, and is currently being recruited by other programs.
One of Long’s former teammates, defensive lineman Luke Arciniega, joined Syracuse after he was disqualified from play at the University of Nevada due to concussions. After suffering another concussion in October from a helmet-to-helmet collision with his teammate during a group tackle, he is now disqualified from Syracuse as well.
The NCAA does not track student athletes who are disqualified from one school due to concussions, and once student athletes are barred from one program, they are given no guidance about the next steps. STAT asked all 65 schools in the Power Five conferences for data about athletes disqualified for concussions over the last five years, and only nine responded with any information. Only two schools — Washington State University and the University of Illinois — provided all of the data requested by researchers.
“One thing is clear from our story: The NCAA and the schools do not want to talk about this issue of medical disqualification,” David Armstrong, the author of the study, said on Here & Now. The lack of communication and inconsistent policies present a significant loophole for schools and programs who prioritize winning above all else.
“If [you] want to go somewhere else, you can find someone to clear you for virtually anything,” said Randy Cohen, the head athletic trainer at the University of Arizona. “The risk assessment for each institution is different.” In fact, STAT found that some schools, such as Syracuse, typically disqualified an athlete after three concussions, while others allowed athletes with as many as 10 concussions to keep playing.
Of course, this isn’t just the NCAA’s problem — there isn’t a medical consensus on how many concussions are “too many” for an athlete to suffer. In the NFL, wide receiver Wes Welker returned to the league this season thanks to a mid-season signing by the St. Louis Rams. Welker has suffered at least six significant concussions in his career and a former teammate has publicly called for him to retire due to concern for his well-being.
Concussions in football are being taken more seriously, thanks to the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma. The disease, which can result in memory loss, uncontrollable anger, and severe depression, was found in the brains of 87 of 91 deceased former NFL players in a study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University. The disease, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, is also prevalent in the brains of those who only played contact sports on an amateur level.
Still, it’s clear that the increased information about brain injuries available and the caution surrounding concussions don’t always outweigh the love for the game.
“I am not scared of another concussion,” Long said in November. “I am not scared of being hit in my head again.”