Q & A: Legal expert, ex-player Ford says colleges need concussion plans


When it comes to football, television, and the law Jack Ford has seen and done just about everything.

He played at Yale for Hall of Fame coach Carm Cozza and was a teammate of Calvin Hill. He went to law school at Fordham. He could have had a long and successful career as an attorney.

But it turned out that Ford's good looks, legal knowledge and communication skills were the perfect match for television. He has worked extensively as a legal analyst for CBS, NBC, Court TV and many, many others. His work has been honored with both the Peabody and Emmy Awards.

In 1997 the NCAA honored Ford with its prestigious Silver Anniversary Award, which goes to highly successful former athletes 25 years after their playing days are over.

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How to best handle concussions among college football players is a topic that is close to Ford's heart. "I had problems with concussions in high school so I was one of the first guys to wear one of the new helmets that gave additional protection," Ford said. "It's a very important issue."

I sat down with Ford in New York on Tuesday to talk about concussions and their impact on college football for a segment of The Tony Barnhart Show.

Question: Is there a lot more awareness of concussions now than when you played in the late 60s and early 70s?

Answer: There's an enormous difference. I still think it's not quite enough. I think we need to learn more. I remember playing in high school -- this was 1967-68 -- [and] going through an entire game at quarterback where I was calling plays from our Pop Warner days because I had gotten lit up early in the game. But you continued to play the game. I remember looking at the tape afterward saying, 'I don't remember any of these plays.' The reality is when you learn more, you're in a better position to respond to things. And the norm becomes very different.

Q: What was the norm for your generation of players?

A: Our norm was if you could get off the field and come back and pass those tests and know who you were, pretty much you went back out and played. Nowadays, we know better and I think we're taking the steps necessary. We're not there yet. But we're taking the steps necessary to make sure we recognize the problems and then deal with them right away.

Q: You have drawn an analogy between where concussion lawsuits are now and where the tobacco lawsuits used to be. What is that analogy?

A: [There are] some significant parallels. Now we're seeing all of these lawsuits being filed against the NFL. There's some I think being contemplated against colleges, maybe even high schools out there down the road. The parallels to the tobacco industry are this: When the tobacco lawsuits started early on, the tobacco industry always won. The notion was you assumed the risk if you were a smoker. You knew [cigarettes] were dangerous. You chose to buy that pack of cigarettes, light it up. You assumed the risk. The argument has always been for football [that] it's a dangerous game. It's a violent game. We all played it. We all have injuries as a consequence that we're all living with. The argument would be for concussions, initially, you knew that that was a hazard. You assumed the risk for that.

Q: So what changed in the tobacco lawsuits and what could change in football?

A: Where things changed with the tobacco litigation is when they started to discover deception. That the manufacturers, the people who were doing publications, the publicists, were hiding facts and were trying to spin things a different way to attract people to smoke. If you get to a position where they discover that the NFL -- and I don't know that they did this, I'm not saying that they did -- but if anybody discovers that somebody was out there hiding facts, hiding test results, burying them so that they could continue to play the game and as a consequence players were hurt who could have been better protected, that makes for an interesting argument that a court would pay attention to. I don't know what a jury would do or appellate courts would do. But it gives them an argument that would be similar to the arguments that were eventually successful in the tobacco litigation.

Q: So should the people who run college athletics be paying close attention to this lawsuit against the NFL?

A: If I'm an athletic director, if I'm a president of a university, I'm talking to my legal counsel and saying, 'What do we do to protect ourselves? Look, we're not saying that we did anything wrong or that we knew there were problems. But we have to recognize the change in the landscape as a consequence of us learning more about concussive results.' So I would say to my athletic department and to my legal counsel, 'What do we need to do here? Let's create a protocol. Let's create one that's clear, in writing. So that everyone on the staff at every level from coaches to trainers to players, know how we're going to handle this. We have to adhere to it. I don't care how big the star [player] is. You have to adhere to it.'

Q: Do you believe that players feel pressure, externally and internally, to get back on the field when they suffer concussions?

A: When I was a freshman at Yale, Calvin Hill was our star. The great Calvin Hill, No. 1 draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys. He got his bell rung, the expression we used then, in the first game. And our trainer said to him, 'You're not playing the next game.' Now he was about to burst onto the scene as a major college football player and the No. 1 draft choice of the Cowboys. Our trainer said, 'I don't care. You're not playing.' So we have to make sure, if I'm a university president, is that we have a protocol and we follow it religiously.

Q: Do you see the possibility of a major lawsuit against college football like the one currently against the NFL?

A: Here's the reality: We are a litigious society. When you and I were playing 40 years ago, would you ever think of filing a lawsuit against your college if you got hurt? No. Things have changed. So there are people out there, lawyers who will be looking for these cases, saying 'If there is a valid argument to make, we should make it.' So I think what you're seeing is the universities, and they should, are going to take steps that will do two things. One, protect their players, most important. But also protect them and their pocketbook. To protect them against any of these lawsuits that might be brought down the road.

Q: The University of Georgia has an eight-page protocol of exactly what must happen if a player is determined to have concussion-like symptoms. Should every school be required to have such a detailed protocol?

A: Anybody who plays college football should have a protocol like this in place, so everybody knows. It helps the players, and could protect them in the event that there ever is any litigation down the road.

Q: Your son is 26 years old now. He didn't play football but was an outstanding lacrosse player at Yale. But if he was 7 or 8 years old today, would you let him play full-contact football?

A: It's such a difficult and troubling question because I've thought about that. When I was growing up we spent all of our days playing football, in somebody's yard or in a field. But we didn't put on pads until we were 13 years old. People argue passionately about this, but I don't think I would have let him play organized football until about seventh grade. I would have wanted him to be bigger, stronger. You look at some of the kids who are like 8 years old. Their little necks can't even hold their helmets. Again, people will disagree with me, [but] my personal decision would have been if you want to play football, I'd love for you to play, but you're not going to start playing with pads until you're 12 or 13 years old.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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