No. 26: Concussed

Society is hypocritical on the physicality inherent to football. As new research continues to detail the long-term impact of concussions and repeated impact to the head, football players, administrators and fans are coming to realize that the sport needs to be reformed, and already such attempts at reform are in place.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

26. Concussed
Chris Owusu is knocked out of four games

Yet, despite the professed concern, it is our money and attention that creates the multibillion dollar industry with multimillion dollar salaries that is NFL football as it exists today, and the multibillion dollar industry with full-ride college scholarships that is NCAA football in its present form.

Us Booties can claim no moral high ground here. While we deplore the violence and many of us question whether our children should play the game, we flock here daily to feed our addiction to the sport, and are among the biggest supporters Stanford football has. We see a lot of problems with college athletics – preferential treatment of athletes, sham education for athletes, misuse of limited education dollars -- and while we can claim that Stanford is largely immune to many of these problems, so they need not concern us, we cannot make the same claim as to the physicality of the game.

Football is every bit as physical at Stanford as it is on any other campus in the country. If anything, football has only grown that much more physical at Stanford in the past five years. Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have built an identity around hitting the other team in the mouth, again and again, and grinding them into the ground. It's blue-collar, smashmouth football, and the players and fans alike have loved it.

Many football players come from tough backgrounds where the sport is one of the few routes seemingly available to a better future. So perhaps they are coerced into playing the game, no matter how risky, for a perceived lack of other options. Most players, however, love the game and, especially as they get older and the science advances, grow increasingly aware of the inherent risks, which they willfully take on. Stanford receiver and 2012 graduate Chris Owusu certainly falls into the latter category. In fact, younger brother Francis Owusu is heading into his senior season with offers from around the country and may well end up a Stanford football player himself.

The tension between football's appeal and safety leads to a whole slew of interesting questions. There are no obvious answers. I've suggested mine, but how we each answer probably says as much about our connection to the game of football and our worldview as it does the subjects in discussion:

Assuming that research continues to demonstrate long-term health consequences of football, should…

  • …public middle and high schools sponsor organized football teams of minors? (Probably not, especially if the consequences of hits to the head are worse for children and teens. Of course, we'll never ban football in the foreseeable future, so what will happen instead is that rules and equipment will somehow be modified to try to make the game safer, or appear safer.)

  • …adults be free to play the game and make money off football from the private market? (Of course.)

  • …public universities sponsor organized football teams of adults (in addition to the government subsidizing the NCAA via tax-exempt status)? (I think athletic departments should not be allowed to draw from the academic side of a university as is, so football's safety doesn't affect my opinion here. If you can't support it via boosters or loans or naming rights or ticket sales or media revenue or ads or…, sorry, but you can't support it with my tuition dollars.)

  • Should government subsidize professional football with free stadiums, tax breaks and the like? (No, but I already think that way. Of course, if I were the mayor and 10,000 jobs were on the line, I'd cut a tax deal too. The NFL needs to grow a sense of shame, or barring that, this sense of shame needs to be legislated.)

So while the moral calculus surrounding the game is complicated, it came home in a personal way for Stanford fans, who had to watch Chris Owusu get knocked out of four games: against %%MATCH_9%% in 2010, and then against Washington State, %%MATCH_10%% and Oregon State in 2011. There's not much more to say about the hits, so we won't focus on them. Some were clean, some were not. Players and coaches apologized for some, not for others. They were all part of the game as we know it today.

In my non-expert opinion, Owusu did appear to be more susceptible to head injury, at least in 2011, than many other players, but that'll have to be a call he and his future football employers make. Here is a YouTube video of the hits, as shown on ABC.

Final thought on concussions and the future of football: at the turn of the 20th century, leading minds were calling for the abolition of football. In 1905 alone, the game had taken 18 lives and seriously injured 159. So it fell to then-President Teddy Roosevelt to invite his Secretary of State Elihu Root and athletic directors and coaches from some of the country's most prominent programs to the White House for a beer football summit. There, at Roosevelt's urging, the group agreed to changes to the game, such as the creation of a penalty system and a cap of 11 players per side, that made the sport safer – and would ultimately save it from itself. (Roosevelt's conference also led to the creation of what would become the NCAA, but hey, no man is perfect.)

Perhaps Roosevelt was onto something 107 years ago and we'll need another national conversation to change the sport for the better, and ultimately save it from itself. In the meanwhile, as Stanford fans have now learned firsthand, we can only hope and pray for the best for those who play the game.

Previous
50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of Washington
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Oregon launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to %%MATCH_8%% doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - Cal jaws pregame, falls behind 45-0 in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52- yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go- ahead TD, Wilkerson's ices W at ASU
32. Injury bug - Despite multiple injuries, 2011 Card manage to rally
31. Whale watching - Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level
30. Suck for Luck - The media machine anoints the next football savior
29. Outta my way - Luck bounces off Cattouse for a 50-yard run
28. 0 for 3 - Card post three shutouts in 2010 campaign
27. Laying the wood - Luck lays out Wright


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