WMU’s Fleck leads crackdown on concussion monitoring

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — As a coach and former player, P.J. Fleck knows the dangers of concussions in football all too well.

And entering his third season at Western Michigan after a successful playing career at Northern Illinois, Fleck is leading a movement toward more safety and monitoring for brain injuries.

For Fleck, it means more attention to detail, specifically watching players during games for any signs they may have suffered a concussion.

“We’re going to keep our players safe; I used to be a player and I’ve had numerous concussions,” Fleck said Wednesday at the Mid-American Conference media day at Ford Field. “I have things from concussions that I live with every single day. It’s close to me so I’m going to make that our players are safe.”

Although conference officials don’t require it, Fleck moved to have a separate monitor in the press box to watch for collisions and potential concussions.

“We had one of our administrators who was an athletic trainer doing exactly that,” Fleck said. “I think the person up there needs to have football experience. If you send someone who doesn’t understand the game, it’s going to make coaches unhappy.”

Concerns about concussions have risen in recent years, but gained some steam last season when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris suffered an apparent concussion during a game against Minnesota but was reinserted into the game.

The incident ignited a controversy about how potential concussions are handled, leading Big Ten and Southeastern Conference officials to pilot a program this year. They will have a neutral athletic trainer in the press box to monitor the field, with the ability to contact the officials if they notice a player showing symptoms.

“We’ll watch to see how that proceeds,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “One of the things we’re talking about is having our own spotter, independent of that, up top that would communicate down with the bench.

“That’s a methodology I think I like a little better than working through the officials.”

It’s a welcome step toward focusing on player safety, which is becoming a greater point of emphasis for parents and younger players, given the recent issues and attention NFL players with brain injuries have brought to the national consciousness.

It’s part of a sentiment that led Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton to write an open letter to parents, highlighting the dangers of playing football, but also accentuating the benefits playing the sport can provide.

“It’s a different environment in the coaching community and with players now,” Creighton said. “I don’t think it’s anything people intentionally messed around with, but it was an unknown.

“If there’s ever any hint that a player has a concussion or got dinged, it’s immediately something that goes to the trainer. When it happens, we know how to deal with it better.”

Some MAC teams are tackling less in practice to reduce the chance of having head injuries outside game situations. But there’s also a push to educate players on the symptoms and to speak up if they’re having issues.

But in Morris’ case, the hectic nature of the game and the shuttling of players on and off the field may have led to his reinsertion into the game.

“It can be overlooked because that’s one guy and that’s where the ball and the attention was,” Fleck said. “What if it was the right guard that’s mixed in a pile and it happens? Are your eyes there or were they on the quarterback?”

Steinbrecher said cases like Morris’ are rare, but one is too many to ignore.

“There are so many different things that go on,” said first-year Central Michigan coach John Bonamego, who coached 16 years in the NFL. “A lot of times, a player wants to be on the field and they will hide those things.”