Concussions, continued

Author: Matt Storin ’64

The National Football League draws a lot of negative attention when it comes to concussions and player safety, but I would argue the NFL is better equipped to deal with these issues than the college game. Two controversies within four days in the early season make the point. As most Notre Dame fans know, senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. sustained a concussion when he was hit — in what appeared to be at least glancing helmet-to-helmet contact — after catching a potential touchdown pass against Texas on September 4.

No penalty was called by the Atlantic Coast Conference officials on the field and no official review was initiated by the review booth to assess possible “targeting” — an infraction that would carry a 15-yard penalty, an automatic first down and possible disqualification of the offending player. Four days later, in the NFL’s high-profile season opener and rematch of last year’s Super Bowl opponents, quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was subjected to several helmet-to-helmet hits in a game against the Denver Broncos. He suffered at least six severe hits, none of which resulted in a penalty.

The postgame reactions to these violent episodes from officials and the media were remarkably different. I would attribute this to two factors. One, there are far more college than pro games, meaning a dispersal of fans' attention. And two, the NFL has a strong central authority — often controversial — that oversees all league matters, including officiating and player safety. College football does not. In the college game, though the NCAA sets rules nationally, the enforcement of those rules by game officials is largely governed by the conferences and the schools.

For the record, the NCAA rule on targeting says this: “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. . . . When in question, it is a foul.” A note on the rule further defines “targeting” as contact in which a “player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.” To this layman, the hit that Longhorns’ sophomore safety Deshon Elliott put on Hunter would appear to be targeting. It was definitely a vicious hit. Elliott later apologized, according to Hunter.

Maybe the hit was legal, maybe it wasn’t. My point here is not to re-officiate the play, but instead to call attention to the fact that no formal NCAA body above the assigned conference officials is responsible for judgments on player safety controversies like this one. To my knowledge, no official ruling was handed down after the game. Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly quoted ACC officials as saying that Elliott’s tackle appeared to be targeting. But Big 12 officials, according to columnist Kirk Bohls of the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, said the conference’s booth review team in the stadium looked at the play and determined it did not warrant formal review.

In a September 6 tweet Bohls quoted Big 12 officiating chief Walt Anderson as saying, "Play was reviewed. Replay (refs) did not feel action warranted egregious foul.” Note that Anderson did not say whether he agreed with those officials. Which leads me to wonder: Who’s minding the store? Without questioning the integrity of the Big 12 officials, I would say the process here was vague and informal.

The NFL, on the other hand, reportedly fined two Denver defenders for the hits on Newton, which attracted considerably more media attention. Whatever the NFL’s faults in dealing with player safety, they clearly have a structure in place to monitor it. Ironically, Newton — unlike Hunter — received no medical diagnosis of concussion. However, the NFL did look into whether the Panthers sufficiently followed the league’s concussion protocol, requiring them to determine whether the quarterback was concussed. The NCAA has been diligent in its rule-making for players’ safety, but I believe they need to go further: they need a monitoring mechanism to ensure the best possible enforcement of the rules.

Matt Storin reported on "Notre Dame’s approach to player safety in the Autumn 2015 issue of this magazine. Storin was a communications official and faculty member at Notre Dame from 2002 to 2014 and is a former editor of the Boston Globe.