This is the worst week I can remember for Michigan football. My mom, a Michigan grad, sent me a text this morning saying she's ashamed of Michigan and sad about the program's state of affairs. The world does and should expect more of Michigan, she says. My mom follows the team perhaps more than the average mother, but I do not usually receive texts from her on Tuesday mornings about the program. That by itself means something's very wrong.
I share her sentiments, and I think Michigan should unquestionably do better than it did. But I also can't help but see a contradiction between being outraged by what Michigan did and also being a part of tackle football – even as a fan.
To explain my reasoning, I ask that you indulge me in a brief journey backward: I grew up playing pick-up football. I loved it. I was also either knocked unconscious or made woozy, stumbling around seeing stars, multiple times. The same happened when I played organized ball. Those few of you who usually read my posts may not be surprised.
I bring up my own unremarkable experience playing football because I believe my experience was entirely typical. And the important point here is that football and concussions go together like dating and awkward moments. Football is a concussion-producing machine.
Does everyone remember the 2012 OSU v. MSU game? William Golson was knocked out for a good minute, and he still finished the game. MSU later claimed he had the wind knocked out of him. You can see that he was unconscious here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AZsok00Pio
If you don’t remember that 2012 contest, how about 2009 Iowa v. Michigan? Tate Forcier was slammed to the turf by Adrien Clayborne and kicked in the head by another Hawkeye (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VrBNPEVFuM) He played another series before being pulled by Coach Rodriguez for performance-related reasons. Coach Rod wouldn’t learn he had a mild concussion until after the game. http://www.annarbor.com/sports/tate-forcier-suffered-a-concussion-vs-iowa-still-michigans-starting-quarterback/
And what about 2010 Notre Dame v. Michigan? Brian Kelly put Dayne Crist back into the game after Crist took a hit to the head that caused him to lose vision in his right eye. http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=5576505
A final clip: one of the many absolutely brutal hits 49ers great Steve Young took during his career, which was cut short by concussions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkm2TzGPX8Y
These are, needless to say, not isolated incidents. The Center for Disease Control estimates that teenagers suffer two million brain injuries per year while playing football. http://grantland.com/features/jonah-lehrer-concussions-adolescents-future-football/
Also needless to say, brain injuries are bad. Former NFL players age 30-49 are 19 times more likely to have dementia than men in that age group from the general population. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/sports/football/30dementia.html?_r=3&hp&
Grantland, meanwhile, reported the following regarding research into concussions in youth players:
"In 2002, a team of neurologists surveying several hundred high school football players concluded that athletes who had suffered three or more concussions were nearly ten times more likely to exhibit multiple “abnormal” responses to head injury, including loss of consciousness and persistent amnesia. A 2004 study, meanwhile, revealed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a “major drop in memory performance” and that three months after a concussion they continued to experience “persistent deficits in processing complex visual stimuli.” What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages."
Additionally, teens with a history of concussions suffer from depression at three times the rate of teens who have not had a single concussion.
Jeffrey Max, M.D., studies the psychiatric outcomes of traumatic brain injury in young people at the University of California, San Diego. He stated the following this year:
"In the clinic, we've certainly seen cases where within hours [of sustaining a concussion], a kid who's never had depression before is suddenly depressed and suicidal. One of our studies found that the brain images in children with traumatic brain injury and depression were actually quite similar to those seen in adults who develop depression as a result of traumatic brain injury."
I don't post any of this to absolve anyone involved in the game this Saturday. But I do post it to put the game in context.
Given that context, I caution any football fan away from being too high-and-mighty with regard to the Morris incident. You're drawing some awfully convenient conclusions if you think you are clean with regard to the issues described above.
Remember when we all loved this picture?
You're fooling yourself if you think PSU's Anthony Morelli wasn't concussed on that play. Despite this, we - myself included - reveled in that moment. And that was only eight years ago, though we've admittedly learned a lot about football and concussions since then.
Standards change, and that's often good. A series of bad acts also don't justify another bad act. But with football, we are all contributing to possible bad acts against young people all the time. You can minimize risk, something Michigan failed at on Saturday, but you also cannot have football without this:
Michigan and all schools should be better about watching out for possible concussions. But everyone involved in football should take time to think about the nature of the game and its inevitable outcomes. We can lessen the game's risks, but all fans and participants of football live in a glass house when it comes to player safety. We should be mindful of that.