How student athletes get around career-ending head injuries

Like the NFL, NCAA schools and teams have taken new precautions to protect student athletes from long-term effects of head injuries. But some players who have been medically disqualified are still finding a way to return to the field. Hari Sreenivasan talks to David Armstrong of online news site STAT.

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    Next: concussions in football and the college game.

    Fans are increasingly aware of concussions at the pro level. The most recent example was on Saturday, when Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered one after a brutal hit by Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Burfict could be facing suspension.

    Tonight, tens of millions of viewers will watch Clemson and Alabama face off in college football's championship game. It's a big night for the sport. But, like pro football, one question lingering throughout the season is how teams are handling concussions.

    Hari Sreenivasan has one look at that in a conversation he recorded earlier.

    Just as the NFL has taken new steps to protect players, some schools and teams and the NCAA have taken new precautions as well. But when it comes to college football, schools have more latitude on some decisions and there are questions about where a team may take too big a risk.

    STAT, an online news site that focuses on health, medical and science, has a report exploring whether some players with too many concussions are still allowed to play.

    It tells it through the story of a sophomore quarterback, A.J. Long, who played for Syracuse. After he suffered his third concussion, the team's head doctor summoned him. He was told him he could no longer play at Syracuse, but A.J. wanted to keep playing somehow.

    Here's an excerpt from a video by STAT featuring A.J. and his father.

  • A.J. LONG, Former Syracuse Football Player:

    He was like, hey, from my professional opinion, I think that it would be best if you didn't play football anymore, so, therefore, I'm going to disqualify you from continuing to play contact sports at Syracuse University.

    When you hear those words, and it's the final verdict, it hurts and it shocks you.

    ACE LONG, Father of A.J. Long: When the doctor called, he was really vague. Well, when you're telling me that you're ending my son's career, you're worried about his welfare, what is this going to entail for the rest of his life?

  • A.J. LONG:

    After my family doing their research and telling me that we're going to go to a specialist and we're going to have them look at it to tell us what they think, because this is what they do for living, what I'm hoping happens is that they look at my brain and they tell me my brain is fine and it's completely safe for me to continue to play the game that I love, in football.


    The brain is something that you can't play with, but, you know, it's hard to put a value on the competitive spirit.


    David Armstrong is a reporter for STAT and joins me now from Boston.

    David, as you point out, and the pictures do in the piece, this is a kid that has Syracuse tattooed on his arm. He dreams of playing there. He wants it. You can tell even from this video that he wants to play ball.

    But the idea that he's essentially now a free agent and can be signed again by another college, even after he has this history of concussions.


    Yes. That's what was really surprising to us, was that a doctor at one university thought that his condition was so perilous, and the danger so extreme, that he could never play contact sports again at that university is then able to go out and be recruited by other schools, and there is no NCAA regulation or restriction on that.

    So he is basically a free agent now, with several schools wooing him.


    And how about the tracking on this? Is there any system inside the NCAA? You talked to a lot of different colleges and sought information from so many different schools. How do they know if they're inheriting an injured player?


    Well, there is no real way to know for sure.

    The player might let them know or they might get some information from someone they know at another school, but the NCAA doesn't keep a list or a database of players who are medically disqualified. And what we found was that we approached the 65 schools that are at the upper echelon of college football, and we asked all of them for basic information about how many athletes are being qualified for concussions.

    And only nine even responded to us. And two gave us the information we were looking for. So it's clearly a subject they're not comfortable speaking about. And at the moment, there is no real good solution that is even being discussed about how to make sure athletes are being protected for the long term.


    Now, you point out that there isn't any single standard on exactly how many concussions is too many.


    That's true.

    We talked to — one of the more interesting people, I think, in the story is the University of Arizona head trainer. And he told us that he has disqualified a football player for a single concussion because it was so severe, but that, in another case, he had a player with 10 concussions throughout his college career and his high school career that he allowed to continue playing because he didn't think that the concussions were so severe as to disable him and to incapacitate him and disqualify him from the team.


    It almost seems like the player or the parents or the family, their dreams are their own worst enemy. Here's a student who knows what the potential outcomes are, at least with all the news that we have been seeing about what happens to NFL players with CTE later in their career, some of them who have suffered concussions on the gridiron.


    Well, that's right.

    I mean, part of the problem here is the science and research into this issue is still in its infancy, and there is no real good guidelines on, for instance, how many concussions are too many. So, you have A.J. Long and his family, who have two diametrically opposed opinions, one from a doctor at Syracuse who says, this is too dangerous, you are not playing anymore, and then another one from a concussion center in Philadelphia, a very reputable one, that says, as of today, you are cleared to play full-contact football.

    So, you can imagine the angst over a decision like that, when you have black and white decisions in front of you and evaluations.


    And those decisions will impact the rest of your, not just playing career, but, if you have a pro career, perhaps the rest of your financial life as well.


    Right, because we know that, in many cases, there are long-term effects from these repeated blows to the head.

    So that's a calculation that the family and the player have to make. But they're doing so with information that's very confusing to them and in a system where one school can tell you, you can't play because it's too dangerous, and another school says, come and play for us.

    So, that's why we want to chronicle this story and A.J.'s decision, because a lot of athletes are finding themselves in this position.


    What was the reason that the schools gave you when they didn't give you the information you were looking for?


    They mostly cited privacy concerns, even though we didn't ask for names or identifying information of that nature.

    They said that we would be to, in some cases, figure out who the injured athlete is, and, therefore, that's a violation of federal law protecting student privacy and also health records.

    In a lot of cases, we don't agree with that. And this is an area that we are going to continue to follow up on.


    So, is there any movement by the schools in any kind of a unified fashion from the NCAA to figure this out?


    None at all that we can find.

    It's one of those things where the NCAA has just sort of said, you know, the schools that are members of our organization, you're on your own. You figure it out. You create your own standard.


    All right, David Armstrong from STAT, thanks so much for joining us.


    Thanks for having me.

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