Screw Their Records, Coaches Must Protect Their Players

Having never been formally introduced to Shane Morris, I can’t say with absolute certainty that the Michigan quarterback is completely intent on avoiding serious brain trauma. Despite this setback in our relationship, or lack thereof, I feel comfortable making a logical leap and assuming that, like most people, the sophomore plans on living past 50 and remembering the names of his family and friends.

If we’re okay with this hypothesis, what happened to Morris on Saturday was nearly a horrific setback to achieving that goal. With Michigan losing 30-7 to Minnesota in the fourth quarter, Morris was blasted by a savage (and illegal) helmet-to-helmet hit that left him ragdolled and limp, face pressed into the field.

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His world completely rocked, Morris got up shaking his head and pulling out his yellow mouthguard before collapsing into an offensive lineman—he was visibly concussed. No one takes a hit that severe and walks away undamaged. Justice Hayes, Michigan’s running back, motioned to the sideline for help, but none came. Morris stayed in for another play, almost threw a pick, and then stumbled over to the sideline. A coach slapped him on the back of the helmet as he wobbled off the field, before leaving on a cart.

“I don’t know if he had a concussion or not, I don’t know that,” said Michigan head coach Brady Hoke after the game. “Shane’s a pretty competitive, tough kid. And Shane wanted to be the quarterback, and so, believe me, if he didn’t want to be he would’ve come to the sideline or stayed down.”

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A funny thing about brain injuries is that—shockingly—they make it virtually impossible to think rationally, even if you believe you’re fine. A winter or two ago, I smacked my head on a sheet of ice while snowboarding, cracking the visor of my helmet and picking up a nice concussion. Dazed and disoriented, I elected that continuing my descent down the mountain was the best course of action, and did exactly that, until my depth perception clouded over and I fell again. Two hours later, I puked behind a Burger King on the way home, and the next day, Health Services held me captive—but right after the accident, I was sure I was fine.

Placing the decision to play or not after sustaining a head injury in the hands of a player is criminally stupid. If Hoke saw that play and still let Morris make that call, he’s either woefully uneducated or simply doesn’t give a crap about the safety of his players, both of which are inexcusable.

If Morris had been hit in the head again on that second play, he could have died. Second Impact Syndrome can occur when the brain experiences trauma immediately after sustaining a concussion. If the brain doesn’t have time to heal after a serious injury and takes another shot, it swells, and then hemorrhages—it’s rare, but when it happens it almost always leads to a coma or a fatality. The chances were slim, but theoretically, Michigan was one headshot away from a dead quarterback and a body in the locker room.

Going into this column, I planned on writing a satirical piece about improving football safety. The gag was stupid: suggest a series of increasingly absurd changes that would become more and more ridiculous until the sport ceased resembling football and transformed into soccer. It probably would have been moderately humorous. But somewhere between viewing No. 20 and No. 30 of the Morris cheap shot and ensuing negligence, my stomach started feeling sick, and I lost the will to joke about it.

With so much increased awareness about the terrifying long-term effects of brain trauma and a free summer-long viewing of how head injuries can be handled with utter ineptitude courtesy of FIFA, the fact that Saturday’s scenes keep occurring is totally disheartening.

Remember when Germany’s Christopher Kramer took a blow to the head in the first half of the World Cup Final? The whole world saw him get concussed and stagger around with glazed eyes. He doesn’t remember playing. At the bare minimum, there were at least three clear concussions in the World Cup—including a player that blacked out on the field but remained in the game—yet FIFA is still dragging its feet, motioning for half-assed reforms while Sepp Blatter squirms around on a giant pile of Qatar blood money and decides whether or not women are worthy of playing on grass, or if their shirts should be lower cut and shorts a bit tighter to show off their asses.

Six years ago, New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman’s career was ruined when he continued playing after a two-fisted punch to the head from a goalkeeper and a severe concussion. Twellman collapsed on the field and told the Revs he was concussed—they said he was fine, and instructed him get back in the game. Twellman spent nine months in a dark room after that—soccer’s gone almost nowhere since.

The NFL is slowly trying to make football safer while lowballing former players in court suffering from CTE and other brain-diseases. FIFA prioritizes pretty much everything over player safety. Hockey culture idolizes toughness to the point of insanity—concussion? Nope, just another rung bell, no damage there. I’m sure Jonathan Toews won’t regret playing in Game Six 20 years from now.

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Across all major sports leagues, head injury reform moves slowly and inefficiently. Players are always going to get hurt, regardless of improved rules and equipment. The governing bodies are always going to place profits above all else, and some idiots are always going to argue that the dude whose brain is currently ricocheting around his skull is being soft.
I have no suggestions on how to make football safer. Nothing will drastically change until someone dies on live television and the cameras can’t cut away quickly enough to hide a corpse lying on the 30 yard line.

I do have hope, though. Growing up, our coaches were there to help us develop as athletes and people. Winning was secondary to safety. The old guys who own these leagues are always going to protect their wallets, but coaches still have the ability to do the right thing in the moment, to bench a top-five center in the show because he might be concussed. Football coaches, NHLers, and soccer managers need to see what Hoke did, and condemn him for it. Before they were paid millions of dollars to win stupid games, coaches were there to help their players—I hope they’ll look at Michigan’s shame and remember that.

Featured Image by Tony Ding / AP Photo

About Connor Mellas 85 Articles
Connor Mellas is a senior at Boston College. He used to be Sports Editor. Now he wanders aimlessly through the void. Follow him on Twitter @MellasHeights.