Safety Remains Top Priority For Big Ten

Incidents involving helmet-to-helmet hits nearly tripled from the 2008 season to the '09 campaign. Concussions remain a hot-button topic in college football, and the Big Ten and its coaches, players and officials are doing their best to increase student-athlete safety on the football field. Read on to find out more about what steps the conference is taking.

Ohio State offensive lineman Bryant Browning is one of the lucky football players. The senior from Cleveland has never had a concussion.

Browning has never had to deal with the horrible headaches, the nausea or the increased sensitivity to light and sound. He doesn't know what it's like to have what Indiana linebacker Tyler Replogle described as his brain rebooting like a computer. But both Big Ten athletes agree that hard hits are going to happen and sometimes, unfortunately, those hits are going to involve a player's head.

That is something Big Ten head of officials Bill Carollo, the conference's coaches and medical staffs are hoping to make a less frequent occurrence. The Big Ten became the first collegiate conference to establish a concussion management plan to be used by its members during the offseason, and Carollo's officials showed that the conference was serious about penalizing dangerous hits by throwing twice as many flags for helmet-to-helmet hits in 2009 compared to a year earlier.

The subject of concussions is one that has gained more attention in recent years as more has been learned about its effects. The Big Ten made it a point of emphasis with its officials during the '09 season, even suspending players for helmet-to-helmet hits. Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman due one of those suspensions, a one-game punishment from a hit levied against Illinois.

The NCAA and Big Ten continued its efforts to combat concussions during the offseason. The NCAA sent a memo to all head athletic trainers in late April. The memo recommended certain practices for treating athletes suspected to have suffered concussions and also required each school to have a written concussion policy on file.

Less than a month later, medical representatives from four Big Ten schools – including Ohio State head athletic trainer Doug Calland – formed the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee and drafted a conference-wide concussion management plan that would serve as a baseline template for all Big Ten institutions, with the exception that each school could add to the plain to serve local interests. Additionally, the committee developed separate acknowledgement forms to be signed by head coaches and student-athletes, forms that would force the signees to acknowledge that they received educational material related to concussions and that they accept responsibility for reporting any concussion symptoms.

Even with these steps, Carollo knows his staff will have to remain diligent in trying to protect the safety of the athletes on the field. During the 2009 Big Ten football season, 16 helmet-to-helmet incidents resulted in penalties, and seven other hits were later determined to be plays in which a flag should have been thrown. Those 23 incidents were nearly triple the number (eight) of helmet-to-helmet penalties thrown during the 2008 Big Ten season.

"It is difficult for the officials, and overall I was pleased that we called some of them (in 2009)," Carollo said. "Do I want a lot of flags? No. I want to clean up the game."

Carollo said education will be the key to stemming the tide of helmet-to-helmet hits and concussions in general.

"What the coaches have been teaching in the last 10 years or so has to change slightly," Carollo added. "We have to keep it so that the head-to-head contacts, or anything now above the shoulders, is going to be illegal if the other player is defenseless."

Carollo took the first step toward educating the conference's head coaches by visiting them in 2009 and going over what specifically his officials would be looking for. It has taken time, but Carollo said he has already seen some positive steps when it comes to helmet-to-helmet contact.

"We called a lot (of penalties) in the first third, first half of the season. Then it started tapering off," Carollo said. "A good example is looking at the bowl games after the season. There were very few helmet-to-helmet hits. At the beginning of the season in September there were a lot of helmet-to-helmet hits."

"The coaches are doing some good things. They're getting the message," Carollo added. "They're reacting to those flags. They're reacting to post-game reviews, as that could cause a situation where a player has to sit out."

Still, concussions remain a frightening reality in football. When asked to describe what suffering a concussion felt like, Replogle used compared his brain to a computer's hard drive.

"To be honest, it's like a computer rebooting," he said. "You go black for a second and then you have to take everything in again and start over. You've got to remember. ‘Alright, I'm at a football game. I'm playing so-and-so. The score is whatever.' It's almost like just waking up, taking in everything."

Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones mentioned some of the physical symptoms first.

"You get immediately nauseous and that's on top of the worst headache you've ever had," Jones said. "You keep your eyes closed because the sunlight immediately gets extremely bright, and that hurts. … It's kind of like blacking out a little bit. Everything in your head gets really heightened. You don't want to hear anything or see anything. You just want to lay down."

The players and coaches interviewed about the matter at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago said their schools do a good job of keeping affected players off the field until they are really ready to return.

"I've never seen anyone with a concussion come back too soon and get hurt again, so I think we do a good job with it," Browning said of Ohio State.

Replogle and Jones also said Indiana and Michigan State leave it up to its medical staffs whether a player can return.

"It is scary, but we've got some pretty good trainers in the Big Ten," Replogle said.

As for the increased penalties called in 2009, Illinois head coach Ron Zook said he understood that stemming the tide of helmet-to-helmet hits will not happen overnight.

"It takes time, but I think the officials have done a great job," Zook said. "Bill Carollo has done a magnificent job with the officials and in educating us and the players about what they want and they expect."

Jones said he's already seen a change, however.

"I've noticed guys trying to play a little safer," Jones said. "The refs are doing their jobs and trying to keep the game safe."

Carollo is among those hopeful that trend continues.

"It's the best game in the world, football," Carollo said. "But we have to make sure we don't forget that just because we like a lot of violence out there we set aside the safety of the players."

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