How the AFCA dropped the ball on player Safety

To begin the second day of this year’s convention, I had high hopes for the early session on “The Future of Football” hosted by Grant Teaff and Mack Brown. With the inclusion of Dr. Sandra Chapman, the founder of the Center for BrainHealth [sic], I was cautiously optimistic that those of us in attendance would get to hear some open, honest dialogue on the problem that football is facing with concussions. I left the session disappointed and more than a little angry.

I don’t like to get too opinionated on this site, but I felt like I had to say something about the absolute farce I witnessed first hand on Monday morning in Indy (Since I’m not looking for another coaching job, I guess I don’t have much to lose by putting this out there, so here goes).

If you’re asking why, take a look at the tweet I sent out in the middle of the session, posted below:

The theme of the session was clear, as Grant Teaff opened up by saying that “Our game is under attack.” The first 40 minutes included introductions of Teaff, Mack Brown, and National Football Foundation President Steve Hatchell, as well as quick anecdotes about themselves and their careers, and what football meant to them. There were also statistics given about the number of new NCAA and NAIA football programs added each year. There was also the stats cited about television ratings, and the fact that they have (not-surprisingly) risen from their numbers in the 1960’s, which is the equivalent of saying that there are more people using the internet today than there were in 1899.

I kept waiting for someone to really address player safety with some concrete steps that could be taken to improve the game, however as I said before, I was to leave disappointed. Hatchell and Brown spent most of their time on stage together waxing poetic about how important football was to them and to many of the people they know. Then, they proceeded to spend ten minutes talking about the PR company they’ve hired to put a positive spin on things, since apparently it’s more important to make football SEEM safer than to actually make it safer.

Finally, since the issue of brain injuries was so important, Dr. Sandra Chapman, who serves as the director for the Center for BrainHealth [sic] was invited on stage with less than ten minutes to go in the scheduled time slot. Dr. Chapman was a thoroughly disappointing speaker, substituting cherry-picked examples and personal anecdotes in lieu of hard data or peer-reviewed evidence. For example, the audience was treated to such gems as:

  • An example of a marine captain that she had worked with who suffered an astonishing 75 concussions. According to Dr. Chapman, he has retained perfect cognitive abilities.
  • The story of her son who she did not allow to play football since she, a neuroscientist, was afraid of the risk of, you guessed it, brain injuries. As it turned out, she let him play hockey in high school, where he ended up breaking his arm. According to her this was evidence that the things you worry about aren’t usually the things that happen in reality, so parents should feel good letting their kids play football.
  • “The most serious brain injuries come from car accidents, but we don’t get rid of cars.” (Author’s Note: But we have made changes to make sure they are much safer to use)

According to Dr. Chapman, there is no limit to the brain’s ability to heal itself, and that the idea that brain damage is permanent is a myth. I’m not a neuroscientist, but it’s worth noting that this seems to conflict with what Dr. Brian Hainline, Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA, had to say later on in the day in a short address during the general session. He explained that there are currently 42 different medical definitions of the word “concussion”, and that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of research in this area, stating: “We understand concussions like we understood Alzheimers and MS 30 years ago.” Regardless of who’s correct, does it seem odd to you that the AFCA would allow two medical professionals with opposing viewpoints to present their information as fact to the coaches in attendance?

There was not one mention of how to detect concussion symptoms in a player after a big hit on the practice field or game day. There were no concrete suggestions about how to improve player safety in any way. There was not even a mention of proper form tackling, something USA Football (a separate organization) has actually done a great job promoting and educating coaches about.

Coaches who attended this session received a booklet of official talking points about player safety, and there were several pieces of advice on the back flap about how to treat concussion symptoms, however, overall the booklet fails in the same area as the session did, having very little actual information inside.

Once again, I don’t usually get too opinionated on this site. My goal here is not to be sarcastic, or create a sensationalized version of what happened. I’m not trying to personally attack Dr. Chapman, or any of the other speakers during the session. I have great respect for Coach Mack Brown and Coach Grant Teaff. I love football, and I love being a part of it, studying it, writing about it, and just being around it. I do not want to see this game fade away into extinction, and I’m not one of the people who have placed this game “under attack” according to Grant Teaff.

That being said, here’s the bottom line: If half-hearted discussions about player safety, and slick media campaigns that gloss over the facts are the best we as coaches can do, our game is in serious trouble. It reflects poorly on our game and on our profession if we cannot acknowledge the elephant in the room that everyone else seems to be aware of. I have serious doubts about this organization’s ability or desire to take on this issue. If we want football to survive, we have to be willing to confront these issues honestly and openly.

If we as coaches fail to do this, if we’re unable to confront the tough questions and have some difficult internal dialogue about this issue, then we will have only ourselves to blame when the talent pool starts to dry up and parents don’t feel comfortable letting their children play the greatest team sport ever invented.

I’m not saying I’ve got the right answers, I’m saying that we as an organization and as a profession need to start asking the right questions.


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3 comments

  • Coach Kirby,

    Thank you for the great report on what you saw at the convention. I was unable to attend, but I was also excited about the possibilities of sessions like this. I have severe concerns about where football is going to be 10 years from now. I am not worried about the NFL and NCAA as they will always be there. I am worried about High School where I coach. Is football going to become a club sport that schools do not carry because of the insurance risks involved? Will too many parents not let their kids play because of the risks?

    Soon, very soon, these questions are going to be answered. If the NFL, NCAA, and AFCA do not get out in front of these issues instead of being reactionary, I do not think any of us will like the outcomes.

    Thanks,
    Coach Pap

  • Ryan

    Alex

    I was also disappointed. This is a huge subject right now in football and our game is being attacked by individuals who do not understand the values and intrinsic thoughts and behaviors the game can give a youg man. I felt as if they used the name “Mack Brown” to get then seats filled… There was some info that was useful but I wih it was a more Q & A with Coach Brown being more than just the opening act…

  • I spoke with several other coaches who were present and they felt the same way. I’m really worried about the outside perception of this profession, which has suffered enough in recent years. The reality is that there is an idea among many in the general public that football coaches are not intelligent and self-aware enough to deal with these problems. Or, even worse, that we are willingly ignoring this because we want football to be a place where if you leave the field without someone else’s blood on your jersey, you’re playing the game wrong. If I was a parent of a football player at that event, I would not have left encouraged about the future.

    To the AFCA’s credit, the session with Craig Bohl and Dr. Hainline the next day was better. I just wish we wouldn’t try to cram a discussion about this important issue into 50 minutes at 8 AM when half the coaches haven’t even left their hotel rooms yet.

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