Mizzou, SEC take cautious approach to concussions

2013-07-14T00:00:00Z 2013-12-05T11:00:05Z Mizzou, SEC take cautious approach to concussionsBy Dave Matter dmatter@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8508 stltoday.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. • Missouri quarterback James Franklin’s injury-ravaged 2012 season ended for good in the third quarter Nov. 17 when Syracuse defenders sacked him, then knocked him backward on a short-yardage keeper on Faurot Field.

After coaches and teammates noticed Franklin staring into the crowd in a daze, trainers put him through a quick series of tests on the sideline, where he stayed for the rest of the game.

Diagnosed with a concussion, Franklin couldn’t practice the next week in preparation for Mizzou’s season finale at Texas A&M. Sunlight bothered his eyes so much that he stayed indoors most of the week.

“It was disappointing not being able to play,” he later said. “But I didn’t try to push it because I had to be careful with my head.”

By game day in College Station, Texas — in a contest the decided underdog Tigers needed to win to secure bowl eligibility — Franklin was feeling better. But Missouri’s medical and training staff made a decision.

“He just wasn’t ready,” Mizzou athletic trainer Rex Sharp said recently. “Forget football. There’s a lot more to this than football. We’d love for him to play, but why?”

Franklin’s injury and Missouri’s cautious approach underscore an issue that’s gaining notice across college football, particularly in the Southeastern Conference.

Three years ago the NCAA required its member schools to adopt a concussion management plan that mandates all athletes be removed from practices or games if showing concussion symptoms.

Doing more

The SEC since has taken further steps to address one of college sport’s most pressing subjects. Last year, the conference assigned a working group of team doctors, trainers and professors to study head injuries for college athletes. At May’s SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., the league urged the NCAA to do more.

“There is much work to be done, and while the conference has a role to play, prevention and treatment of concussion injuries is a national concern that needs and deserves a coordinated national effort,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement. “For this reason, the presidents and chancellors will make a formal request that the NCAA take the lead in organizing and spearheading a national research effort and examining possible revisions to playing rules in football and other sports.”

With heightened awareness surrounding concussions in the NFL — a concussion is brain trauma caused by a direct or indirect blow to the skull — the issue has trickled down to the college ranks, where studies and rule changes continue to tackle the concerns.

In September, the NCAA’s Injury Surveillance Program released a study showing that after decades of escalating incidents the number of concussions suffered by football players had stabilized between 2004-2012.

In March, the NCAA passed a rule allowing officials to eject players who target and contact defenseless players above the shoulders — though such ejections are subject to instant replay reviews.

The SEC was aggressive in penalizing illegal hits last season as two players, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger and Mississippi’s Trae Elston, were suspended for a game each.

At Missouri, the training staff has followed protocols that have been in place since Sharp arrived in 1996. Sharp said Missouri has had a slight increase in football concussions in recent years, but he attributes that to enhanced awareness and players being more honest about their symptoms.

“The biggest thing for me is educating our players and making them understand that this is not a sprained ankle,” he said. “We can’t just put a bag of ice on this and make it better.”

Staying informed

Last summer, the SEC produced posters that explained concussion symptoms and required each school to hang them in their locker rooms.

In a recent interview, Sharp pointed to a stack of concussion pamphlets piled on a table in his office as further proof that players are regularly exposed to information on the topic.

Still, Sharp takes away a player’s helmet if he shows signs of a concussion during a game or practice.

“They want to go play,” he said. “We have to look out for their best interest, so I figure if they run out there without a helmet, I’ll notice.”

In 1996, Missouri linebacker Barry Odom suffered a mild concussion covering a kickoff at Southern Methodist. He, too, was stubborn about being sent to the sideline.

“I felt guilty for being out because I had a headache,” said Odom, who later joined Gary Pinkel’s Mizzou coaching staff and now serves as Memphis’ defensive coordinator. “Most competitive people would probably agree.”

Odom gradually recovered and returned to action — only to suffer a more severe concussion a month later against Colorado.

Now, after working alongside Sharp on Pinkel’s staff, Odom can appreciate the process that determined his recovery.

“There weren’t a lot of studies done at that time, but they sat me out of practice and did all the things you would think you were supposed to do,” Odom said. “Looking back, with all the information we have (on concussions) now, that’s what Rex was doing back then.”

Along with the help of Tom Martin, the director of MU’s adult neuropsychology department, Sharp put together Mizzou’s concussion plan three years ago, detailing the training staff’s graded policy for testing athletes after they’ve suffered concussions.

Players who have a concussion are monitored daily and must remain symptom-free for 24 hours before being cleared to resume a gradual return to activity. While they recover, players are held out of practices, weightlifting sessions and, in some cases, prohibited from attending class.

Some schools are developing advanced methods to detect and treat concussions. This month, the University of Nebraska will open its Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior inside the football stadium, featuring a $3 million on-site magnetic resonance imaging machine, The Associated Press reported.

Nebraska’s medical staff also is developing an electrode-covered cap that can read a player’s brain activity on the sideline and immediately diagnose a concussion.

Sharp said he’s intrigued by the technology but also wondered, “How much is too much?”

High school connection

Two years ago, Martin helped write a sports concussion state bill for high school athletes, requiring concussion education for high school coaches among other provisions for athletes with a concussion. Last year, the Missouri State High School Activities Association released its first study since the bill became law.

Among the findings, 653 high school football players were diagnosed with concussions during the 2011 season and missed an average of six days of activity while recovering.

With the increased education around the state, the law has been “a huge success” at the high school level, Martin said.

“The one thing we don’t want is for someone’s who recovering from a concussion to be put into a situation of having another one,” he said. “And if you return too soon, what would have lasted days or weeks now turns into months or years and in some cases indefinitely.”

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