First, let’s review concussions for a second. Concussions are serious, so much so that they—along with the head trauma from repeated impact in a contact sport seemingly bent on destroying itself—will at the least completely change the sport of football, or possibly destroy it. In conversations, this is something way more coaches are willing to admit than one might assume.
Practice is something completely different, however. Coaches begrudgingly agree to concussion protocols and cede control to observers and doctors from both the team and their conferences. That is anything but a perfect solution to the issue of concussions and head trauma for a lot of reasons, most immediately because team doctors and staffers can be vulnerable to direct and indirect pressure to clear players for the field.
Also: It’s still football, and even subconcussive hits have been shown to have a dire effect on the human brain’s well-being. If doctors were being very strict about this they’d pull every player but the punters off the field.
Culturally there’s an issue with diagnosing injury here, too. Football is not taught as a sport where a player should ever willingly come off the field. It’s a well-worn loop of half-logic: Football is a sport of toughness, that toughness includes playing injured, and injury lies somewhere along the line between when the brain says for the body to quit, and when the body involuntarily gives out on its own.
Judging where one stops and the other begins is at the root of a lot of stupid injury-related things in football. A lot of that judging is done by the player using their own brain, and now everyone’s at the core of why diagnosing brain injuries even at their most dramatic is so difficult. The observed subject in the case (The player) might not even be able—or even want-- to relay accurate information about the injury in question. The thing injured here for the player is the information collector itself, and all within the framework of a game where a player is trained not to admit they are hurt too badly to play.
Add in toughness and some serious magical thinking about injuries of any sort, and it presents a horrendous challenge for the sport to address in real time.
All that being said: A report coming out of Tennessee via The Read Optional that Butch Jones and the Tennessee staff knowingly played starting right tackle Brett Kendrick until the final 22 seconds of the game with a concussion so bad he threw up on the sidelines is horrible. It also feels like something that, excepting some egregious and obvious cases, could have been reported from a lot of football games from this past weekend. This is built into the game at this point, and is a feature not a bug. Until it’s not, you could write this story every week to some degree or another.
It is just one report. However, one might wonder why this particular report got out now. The Tennessee AD felt moved enough to respond to it in this exact very precisely worded statement:
Statement from Tennessee’s AD addresses concussion protocol but doesn’t make a statement on if protocol was followed. pic.twitter.com/nfAsY9rldZ— Football Time in TN (@FootballTimeMag) November 1, 2017
We have a constantly and consistently communicated expectation... That is not “We’re sure our coaches followed the exact protocols in place, and would never, ever do that.” That is “the administration has a rule” without a corresponding “I have spoken with and have faith in our current leadership.” It’s as much of an intentional public posture as the Florida administration carefully pointing out that after Jim McElwain said he’d received death threats, “he offered no additional details."
It is not a sign that Tennessee will fire Butch Jones for cause. This could have way more to do with Tennessee as an institution, and about legal posturing in future lawsuits, etc. But it is not insane to point out that this is a statement that puts Tennessee into a position where they could try to fire Butch Jones for cause if they chose to do so. Tennessee even went so far as to put out this statement after Jones denied knowing Kendrick had a concussion to Currie on Sunday after the game.
It would be very cynical to point out that no one seems to care more about player welfare than when a team is losing and/or when a school needs maximum leverage in a buyout and/or future litigation. It might also feel like something that was very, very accurate, and that could go a thousand other bad, unpredictable ways down the road.