Mark Emmert, Please Spark Football Helmet Change
Dear Mark Emmert,
I know it’s been a grueling, thankless two years since you’ve become president of the NCAA.
You have been grilled about not paying college athletes, ridiculed for rulings that make little sense, mocked for not throwing the book at NCAA infraction offenders like you swore to do and, well, generally been portrayed as an evil villain. Heck, even John Calipari is piling on you now.
That pretty much comes with the job description of running the most reviled organization in sports.
But when you started this job in 2010, you told The New York Times your goal was to be remembered for putting the welfare of student-athletes first.
“That would be a spectacular legacy,” you said. “I could go to my grave a happy man.”
Well, Mark, there’s nothing more you can do for the welfare of college student-athletes than leading an overhaul of the football helmet.
The tipping point, at least for me, when the public realized we had a full-blown crisis with the safety of football helmets was when former Wisconsin and Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster died a horrific death in 2002 after his life spiraled out of control due to mental problems. As a result of the repeated trauma to his head, Webster was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), now a buzz word when talking about deceased football players like Webster and Junior Seau.
That was a decade ago.
Everyone knows that football helmets have ironically evolved from protective gear to weapons and are now the cause of massive head trauma instead of the solution. If you’ve ever put one on, Mark, you know the lids worn by current football players feel like having a cement block on your head that could smash through a brick wall.
The outer shell of a football helmet is so hard and powerful that defensive football players lead with their head on almost every play - just a fraction of which are called for helmet-to-helmet penalties. Don’t believe me? Check out the difference in how college football players tackle by lowering their heads into opponents compared to rugby players who turn their heads away from contact (that’s not to say rugby is safer, it’s just to illustrate a point on the head trauma football players induce).
It’s gotten to the point where certain positions like linemen and linebacker absorb a blow to the head on almost every play.
And yet, despite all this, the change in football helmets at the college and NFL levels has been almost unnoticeable in the last 10 years.
Yes, players like Peyton Manning have started wearing the quirky Revolution to cut down on concussions. The helmets have become more prevalent in the NFL and now trickled down to the college game. And others like Brandon Jacobs are now wearing the eye-popping ION 4D for increased safety. But you’re kidding yourself if you think variations of normal helmets like these are going to eliminate the plague of mass head trauma that is currently upon college football and the NFL.
I don’t know if the solution is soft-shell helmets, removing face masks, leather lids like what were worn back in the day or abolishing helmets altogether as some have suggested, but it’s clear something drastic needs to be done. Immediately.
Roger Goodell is facing extreme pressure as ex-NFL players continue to commit suicide at an alarming rate while others pile on lawsuits against the league; yet, somehow, nothing appears to be expected from you to better protect the welfare of student-athletes, your own stated goal of being the NCAA’s president.
Think about this for a second. Exactly 1,696 NFL players start every season (32 teams made up of 53 players each). Yes, the hits are bigger and the players have much longer careers in the league when compared to college.
But do you know how many student-athletes play college football every year, Mark? According to your own association, there were 630 full-time NCAA football programs last season (120 for FBS, 121 for FCS, 150 for DII, 239 for DIII). With around 100 players per roster, that’s approximately 63,000 kids that played college football last season on your watch. Marinate on that for a second. By the time you retire, you will be affecting the futures of hundreds of thousands of young men.
And while the suicide of former NFL stars (who I should point out also played college football at one point) have taken up the headlines, there have been plenty of incidents since 2000 that should have sparked massive change at the college level.
There was Washington’s Curtis Williams, who was paralyzed in 2000 after a hit and died in 2002 due to complications from paralysis. There was Owen Thomas, a Penn player who committed suicide in 2010 and was later shown to have early signs of CTE even at the age of 21. There are Penn State’s Adam Taliaferro, Ohio State’s Tyson Gentry and Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand, all of whom were paralyzed after traumatic hits to the head - only Taliaferro is currently walking. And then there are lesser cases like Rice’s Sam McGuffie, who suffered three concussions in just his freshman season at Michigan and will likely have lasting effects from so much head trauma in such a short amount of time.
Your reaction to all this has been slow and insufficient. New rules promoting safety by re-instituting the halo rule on all kicks, moving kickoffs up to the 35 and stopping play when a player’s helmet comes off is a start, but those three rules combine to account for a fraction of all plays. And while the NFL has actively fined and suspended players for brutal hits, the NCAA does nothing after cheap shots like this. I realize the NCAA hasn’t made it it’s business to reprimand players for on-field actions, but it just feeds the perception the association isn’t doing enough about player safety.
So what should you do?
A couple steps can be done almost immediately. First, force all NCAA athletes to wear helmets that meet the association’s safety standards, such as the Revolution and the ION 4D. If there are two helmets that are clearly better than traditional lids, why not make them mandatory?
You should also be vocal on the issue of helmets like you were about covering the full cost of attendance for student-athletes. After the smashing success of last year’s presidents retreat, why not have another one with the stated goal to address the overhaul of college football helmets?
Thirdly, you need a football commissioner. A widely debated topic for some time, a commissioner would not only suspend players for cheap shots but also spend a big chunk of his time looking into permanent helmet alternatives. Just for starters, it’s absurd that Virginia Tech has established a way to measure helmet safety while the NCAA has not. Granting $400,000 to the National Sport Concussion Outcomes Study Consortium is a nice gesture but that’s not nearly enough money for this problem and the study sounds so reactive instead of proactive. The long-term effects of concussions are becoming more clear by the day; what’s not clear is a solution.
The commissioner would also be able to interview former players, doctors, scientists and engineers to find out the best solution to the current helmet crisis. And considering the NCAA made $757 million last year, there’s no excuse that it can’t afford this.
And if that sounds expensive, imagine the price of defending yourself against class-action lawsuits like the NFL is now having to do. You better believe that after the first payout to former NFL players by courts (and possibly even before), former college football stars with debilitating injuries who never went on to the pros will be calling their lawyers.
It’s the NCAA’s duty, and your duty, to finally spearhead the overhaul of the football helmet that is plaguing the sport. And your legacy depends on it.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday and Wednesday.