Concussions and college football: The game must change -- or perish

The Pac-12 has already taken measures to limit contact in practices. (USATSI)
The Pac-12 has already taken measures to limit contact in practices. (USATSI) Senior College Football Columnist Dennis Dodd spent the off-season investigating the issue of concussions in college football -- the background on the issue, the competing interests at play in the current debate, and the way forward for the sport. The details of Dodd's reporting will be revealed in a multi-part series throughout the week, with previous installments of the series indexed HERE.

In the future there will be no helmets. There will be plastic flags flapping from their hips, attached by Velcro. Pull them off, you've made a "tackle". Pads? Only those on the walls in the back of the end zones so no one stubs a toe.

Welcome to the world of college football in 2033.

At the current rate -- per the nut job college football rules reactionaries of 2013 -- the game will de-evolve into touch in 20 years. You've heard or seen the uninformed whining analysts across the media landscape as the game redefines itself due to the growing concern over head trauma.

Limiting contact, flagging head shots, protecting quarterbacks is going to make less men of us all. That's their take. Here's mine in concluding's series on concussions:

Beer does not lead to heroin. An urgent, vital movement to protect players from the current style of football they play is not a bad thing. Yes, the game is probably going from Point A to Point Z but not without several stops in between. The need for the game to be safer trumps any primal urge to watch another knockout blow. What we are experiencing is a slow adjustment to a rapidly accelerating problem -- head trauma in the game.

"I absolutely believe the game is changing," said former Colorado quarterback Joel Klatt. "It's either going to be incumbent on the people within the game to change it or it's going to be changed from outside."

It may take 10, 20 years to adjust -- legally, medically and athletically -- but we're still going to recognize the game we love in a couple of decades. Perhaps without kickoffs. That once-outrageous concept advanced by former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, after Eric Legrand was paralyzed, now has a bit of traction. Roger Goodell advocated the concept late last year.

We're already headed that way. Thanks to rule changes, there are less kickoffs to return. Concussions on kickoffs were reduced by 50 percent last season. It's not that far a jump to eliminate them altogether by doing away with the kickoff.

Dr. Javier Cardenas is a child neurology expert at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. He has two sons ready to play tackle football for the first time.

"How prepared are they to protect themselves?" he asked. "It would be sort of like sending a kid out to drive a car for the first time without driving instructions ... I'm a proponent of minimizing [contact]."

Voices like Cardenas' are being heard over those of the reactionaries, who have become over-reactionaries. The critics have no sense of history or the human condition. The game has always evolved over physical concerns. It will again. And it will thrive.

Remember when Deacon Jones made the head slap famous? Or when the quarterback doubled as target practice for defenders? Now critics decry a "strike zone" on the quarterback's body where he can be struck legally.

Defenders will adjust, as they will adjust to the new ejection rule for targeting the head area. Let's look at the evolution of the targeting rule itself. There is a reason it has been around since 2009. Too many players were launching themselves head first into opponents.

BYU equipment manager Mick Hill has been in the business for 40 years, serving on various advisory boards. He knows helmets better than coaches and players. The question was posed: Can the game survive like it is now?

"At this pace, I don't know," Hill said. "If it grows as much in impact in the next 15 as much as it has gained the last 15, I don't know. It's a tough question."

The game has to change. It always has. As football's popularity grew in the 1800s, flat-out fighting was allowed. Something called "mass-momentum plays" by an offense that targeted one defenseless defender. There were 18 deaths in college football the year Teddy Roosevelt began his second term in 1905.

To believe that current football is overwrought with overprotective rules is to believe it can't evolve again. The game has to change -- or face many of the same issues of 1905. Too much violence and too much death.

We don't know the long-term effects of brain trauma just like we don't know the long-term effects of rules changes. One thing for sure: One of those maims. The other lessens the likelihood.

Kickoffs are likely to disappear as college football improves its safety. (USATSI)
Kickoffs are likely to disappear as college football improves its safety. (USATSI)

"If they do change the game, nobody will remember how the game was 20 years ago," said Andrew Hudson, a former Oklahoma State defensive lineman who was knocked out of the game by a concussion in 2010. "It will be the way the game is played. Everyone knows the flying wedge ... Not one of us grew up thinking I wish this was different."

But if the administrative, athletic and legal communities don't come together, we are left with this assessment of how college football will look in 2033 from Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer.

"That's assuming football is going to be around in 10 or 20 years," he said. "I really hope it is. I think it's a great sport."

Football is dealing with the issue of head trauma on the run. Three major concussion studies have come out just this year. Prevention, treatment and research are ongoing topics, not ending points.

Evolution continues. College football has become more of a finesse game in the last decade with the rise of stylized spread-option up-tempo offenses. (And, yes, they are finesse offenses no matter what Nick Saban and Bret Bielema say.)

What will college football look like in 20 years? Based on several interviews conducted over three months with sources both inside and outside the game, here are some educated guesses ...

No kickoffs

That seems obvious. The concept may not go down easy for some of you right now, but the move makes too much sense.

Schiano's take: Following a score, the "receiving" team would be given the option of going for it in a fourth-and-15 scenario from its own 30 or punting. That's a hell of a lot more exciting than the score-commercial-kickoff-commercial scenario we are stuck with too often.

"I've said for years, you ought to eliminate the kicking game entirely," Hill said.

Players will be smaller and faster

That seems to be a given the way the rules are headed. Coaches will have to favor those that can run away from hits more than those who can deliver the knockout blows. That's because knockout blows will be flagged.

We're already seeing it with 5-foot, 9-inch, 185-pound Wes Welker flourishing as an NFL receiver. In college, long, lean Jadeveon Clowney (6-foot, 6-inch, 274 pounds) is able to dominate 320-pound offensive linemen with his strength and speed.

Players will be monitored during games

Work is already being done toward that point at the University of Nebraska's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior.

Sixty-seven year-old Dr. Dennis Molfese has developed a possibly ground-breaking device. It's kind of a mesh-web sensor cap.

The device would be able to provide "biomarkers" -- or a result that would show immediately if a player should return to play.

"If the player is identified as having a concussion, it gives you confidence about pulling him out," Molfese said. "We've found out that players can fake things. At the beginning of the season, the senior players can coach junior players, 'OK, do really bad on this [preseason baseline] test, so your test will get better [when you're possibly injured]. So they go back in and they're at more danger.

"This is a more objective thing."

What's a biomarker? Example: A blood test can reveal the existence of "CPK", a heart muscle enzyme, which is an indication of a heart attack.

"Biomarkers we're searching for in concussions is similar to CPK," Hainline said. "The evidence we're looking for is that there has been a disruption of the blood, a brain barrier -- and that leads to a release of certain chemicals. We can measure that."

The best part, at least at Nebraska, is that Tom Osborne is a wild about the center and Molfese's work.

"He tells the story going back to college days," Molfese said. "He had taken a shot and had no recall of third and fourth quarters. He had no idea what happened until he watched the game film." 

Practices will drastically change

Since the game will be played more in space, there will be even less incentive to hit (full contact) in practice. The Ivy League and Pac-12 have instituted full-contact practice limits.

Anecdotally, it seems that most college coaches don't hit much in-season as it is. The risk of injury is too great in a limited amount of time to get ready for the next opponent.

"What we try to do is create as much contact and minimize the space to prevent the high-collision point," said Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson. "If you did tackling drills that were 10 yards away, now it's five. It's still contact, but it's not high-speed contact."

Programs will adjust or perish

In 2009, LaSalle paid a $7.5 million settlement to a player who had sustained brain damage. Two years earlier the school discontinued its football program for unrelated reasons, the school said. Still, administrators everywhere should take notice. That could have been them in an ugly contentious trial.

"Plaintiffs who are always on alert for the next big money issue," said attorney Steve Pachman, who has defended several subjects in high-dollar catastrophic injury suits. "Asbestos, cigarettes, Fen-Phen, it appears concussions is the new one. Plaintiffs' lawyers across the country are specifically targeting concussions. I tell schools they need to be on red alert."

Pachman says the legal burden has shifted away from players toward trainers, coaches, schools and/or administrators. Such cases can involve judgments ranging from $50 million-$100 million, Pachman added.

"I'm getting calls right and left [for cases]," he said. "It's [head trauma] good for business."

Anything schools can do to be proactive in preventing head trauma is a plus -- education, preseason baseline testing, neuropsychological testing etc.

"If you get sued," Pachman said of adhering merely to NCAA recommendations regarding head trauma, "I guarantee you that will not be enough."

Pachman advocates a "super" standard of care to stave off lawsuits. For example, the NFL is moving toward putting independent neurological consultants on the sidelines this season.

"If we fail to protect the players there could be dire consequences," said attorney Bill Conaty, a former Virginia Tech and NFL player. "All it takes is one kid going back [to play] too early. That, inevitably, will lead to litigation."

Which is one place college football doesn't want to end up in the future -- the courtroom.

Concussions and college football

Part 1: Ex-player's case takes aim at NCAA
Q&A: NCAA's chief doctor answers questions
Part 2: Ex-QB Klatt puts onus on NCAA
Part 3: Stiles' death may unravel mystery
Part 4: Will college football change? Yes
Quotable: Notable thoughts on concussions

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

Show Comments Hide Comments
Our Latest Stories