How A Bad NCAA Rule Could Make Football's Concussion Crisis Even Worse

Sun Devils quarterback Steven Threet suffered two concussions last season, and he's officially had his brain knocked against his skull five times in four years of college football. Last week, the Michigan transfer announced that, to avoid any long-term damage to his mental health, he will forgo his final year of eligibility and quit football.

Mercifully, both for Threet and for ASU, the senior is on pace to graduate this spring, which saves the university from having to decide whether to renew his scholarship just so he can watch from the sidelines next season. But concussions can't be planned around graduations. And at some point soon, thanks in large part to the bad incentives created by the NCAA's one-year, renewable scholarship, an athletic department somewhere will have to choose between expediency and simple humanity, and an athlete somewhere else will have to choose between his scholarship and his health.

By our count, Threet is the fourth player from a high-profile Division I football program to decide to leave the game in the past year alone. Last April, Southern Methodist cornerback Derrius Bell announced he was done; he was coping with a sleeping condition that doctors thought was related to his multiple concussions. "It's like I'm sleeping... but I can't snap out of it," Bell told the Dallas Observer at the time. "I can hear me telling myself it's time to wake up. I'm fighting to wake up, but I can't. Then all of the sudden I just pop awake and I'm not sure what happened." And last November, both Texas running back Tre' Newton and BYU safety Steven Thomas turned in their jerseys, as well.

The departure hasn't affected the players' scholarship status: Bell, Newton, and Thomas stayed on as player-assistant coaches and the schools pledged to honor their scholarships, and Threet is on pace to graduate in May. There's precedent, then, for upholding a commitment to student-athletes who suffer head injuries on the field and retire early because of it. But that may not be an option for every football program in the country.

There's no official policy on scholarship athletes who want to be responsible to their brains — NCAA spokesman Chris Radford said the decision "would be entirely up to the school" when it conducts its annual scholarships review. "The school has the same options it does for student-athletes who have season-ending injuries," Radford says. One of those options is a waiver known as a "medical non-counter," which allows the school to maintain the financial aid package for an incapacitated athlete without counting against its allotment of athletic scholarships. This requires thorough documentation — something rarely in abundance when it comes to concussions — and the final decision is left to the discretion of the institution, which has the costs of a scholarship to consider.

It's hard to imagine a high-profile program choosing to renege on a player's scholarship because his or her brain has been knocked around too many times doing the very thing the school has asked of them. "Someone would have to argue that the player is quitting," says SI.com's injury guru Will Carroll in an email, "and I don't think that's a PR battle anyone wants."

"It strikes me that universities have an ethical obligation, not legal but ethical, to uphold scholarships [for athletes who were injured while playing for them]," says Michael Oriard, a former NFL player and now an associate dean and English professor at Oregon State. "After all, we should hold ourselves to higher standards than the technical legalities of the land."

But since 1973, when the NCAA instituted the three divisions and mandated that schools could only award one-year, renewable athletic scholarships, that's how the business has been done. Oriard thoroughly documented this development in his book Bowled Over; he argued that this seemingly minor change was as responsible as anything else for killing off the notion that collegiate athletes could be equal parts "student" and "athlete." He called the '73 decision to be "a radical sea change for college football."

"Suddenly the athlete is primarily responsible to his football coach rather than to the university," he tells me. "I think that's had a tremendous impact on the culture." The personal stakes for players are higher, and, for universities with high-profile football programs, so are the commercial stakes. The end of the four-year scholarship was the end of any leverage amateur athletes might've had, and it brought the kind of workplace insecurities found in any hotly competitive industry to the collegiate locker room. A player who can't produce is a player whose scholarship may be in jeopardy.

"The other issue is, what is a scholarship?" Oriard says. "Is it an employment contract? Because if were an employment contract, then workman's compensation could apply. But because it's held to be different, there are no obligations to some of the universities to the athletes. I'd like for universities to hold themselves to higher standards, and unfortunately we don't know how often they do."

Concussions raise the stakes immeasurably. The new question, then, is if cumulative concussions should be treated any differently than a season-ending knee injury in a university's annual scholarship review. Dustin Fink, a certified athletic trainer who also runs The Concussion Blog, says he thinks the NCAA should consider "automatically granting schools the extra scholarship if a player has to stop due to concussions."

"Talk about a message that would be clear," Fink says in an email. "This may also have a secondary impact of giving the players and schools an 'out' in [cases with] multiple concussions."

Oriard, too, said says an athlete's long-term mental health should hold more weight than a pair of healthy knees: "We've known for a long time that old players become increasingly immobile as we age," Oriard says, "but this stuff is an order of magnitude greater. We're talking about losing your self, not your mobility. That has to be an urgent concern."

Part of the issue for athletes, of course, is that it's much easier to hide brain trauma. You stand up from a hard hit, take a few dizzying steps, and get back into the huddle. Because the consequences of multiple concussions might not emerge until a decade or two after a player's final snap, 20-year-olds still retain their "self" after a few hard hits. In this new age of concussion consciousness, that makes the choice to leave the game for fear of long-term mental health issues both admirable and, in all likelihood, rare. There are football players at every level who feel as if the game is, as Bell said last April, "the only thing I'm really good at" — and if it's the only thing paying tuition, there's no incentive to even report the injury in the first place. Bell, Threet, Newton, and Thomas might turn out to be exceptional cases, given the political economy of college sports. Everyone — players and coaches and administrators alike — did the admirable thing in a world whose rules all but demand they behave irresponsibly.