Trainers suspecting concussions can stop Big Ten games

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Shane Morris is assisted by teammates after being injured in the Minnesota game last season.

Chicago — The Big Ten insists one of its primary concerns every football season is player safety.
And after witnessing what happened at Michigan last Sept. 27 in a game against Minnesota, the powers that be in the conference knew it was time to act.

They had already been working on plans to increase monitoring players in-game for head injuries, but when Wolverines quarterback Shane Morris suffered a head injury that seemed obvious, at least to many watching the game, but was reinserted into the game, the push began to implement change.

“The health and safety of our players … it’s been paramount for us,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Friday at the conference’s media day. “Last year, there was an incident at Michigan and they spoke to it and I think there were eyes that didn’t grasp fully, in real time, what was occurring. From our perspective, we thought, how can we change this? How can we improve that?”

The answer, at least for now, is a new monitoring system detailed by coordinator of officials Bill Carollo that places a monitor in the booth for all Big Ten home games. That monitor will be a certified trainer that will have the ability to notify the replay booth to buzz the on-field officials in order to stop the game if they notice a player who might have suffered a head injury.

Once the on-field officials are notified, a stoppage in play will occur and that player will be taken off the field for at least one play. The player can only be put back in the game after he is cleared by on-field medical personnel.

That communication was the biggest issue last year when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris appeared to suffer a head injury and came out of the game after being helped to his feet by teammates. However, two plays later Morris was back in the game.

Then-coach Brady Hoke told reporters he did not believe Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion, though then-athletic director Dave Brandon later confirmed the concussion and apologized for a “serious lack of communication” that allowed Morris to return to the game.

“I think that situation got a lot of people’s attention across the country,” Carollo said. “But it was two years ago that we experimented with this same idea at multiple spring games in the Big Ten. … So this has been a work in progress for a couple years. And maybe the situation at Michigan accelerated it. But player safety is paramount as far as we're concerned and I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Deciding how to implement the new program began by surveying all 14 conference teams as well as plenty of personnel from around the NFL, Delany said. The research revealed that some teams already had trainers in the press box but they did not have the ability to stop play.

Testing the new setup in the Big Ten championship game helped the conference leaders decide they were headed in the right direction.

“They have the ability to call and stop the game, not to make a final decision, but to bring to the attention of the health officials on the sideline, so it's an extra layer of oversight,” Delany said. “I think it was not only was the incident at Michigan precipitating our reviewing this policy, but it's just a general overall concern at this juncture to get the best research, to get the best playing rules, to get the best day-game procedures, to provide the best environment in a sport, which is very physical.”

It’s not surprising the Big Ten is taking the lead on the issue of head injuries.

In 2012, the Big Ten joined forces with the Ivy League to collaborate on more advanced research and study of brain injuries in sports.

That collaboration continues today.

“We had a third summit here in Chicago with researchers from all of those institutions who are collaborating, seeking funds to do long-term epidemiological research,” Delany said. “So it's high on our agenda both with respect to research but also with respect to the application of our rules and in terms of the kinds of contact and the kinds of officiating that go into place.”

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood is glad to see those qualified having a say in whether a player should come off the field.

“We have a great medical staff and they’re the ones that ultimately decide what the protocol is, and that’s critical,” Flood said. “Those are medical decisions that need to be made by medical professionals. Part of that is having a guy up in the booth as a spotter. Anything we can do to increase player safety is always a positive.”

It’s also a comfortable feeling for the players, including one of Morris’ teammates.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Michigan senior linebacker James Ross III said. “As a player, if you get hurt it’s human nature to not want to come out (of the game) but you might need to. For them to put that plan in is gonna help in the long run. I feel like you might not agree with that right now but you’re gonna agree with it later on in life if it helped you when something was really wrong. It is definitely necessary in today’s game.”