Hayes: Brady Hoke and the startling gravity of concussion safety

Bob Hayes, Assistant Opinion Editor

The horrifying dangers of concussions in football have been well covered by both doctors and the national media in recent years. While we all know much more on the topic than we did just a few years ago, it is important to understand that an athlete’s temporary loss of physical and mental control after sustaining a concussion means far less than the potential long-term effects of continuing to play. Many athletes receive permanent brain damage from prematurely returning to play, and as many as fifty percent of these second impact injuries result in death. On a more long-term scale, CNN says, “Reports show an increasing number of retired NFL players who have suffered concussions developed memory and cognitive issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”

With these devastating potential consequences of head injuries, it is reasonable to expect any coach put in charge of the health of dozens of young men to act with the utmost vigilance whenever a player appears to sustain such an injury. Yet Brady Hoke, fourth-year head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, and his coaching staff embarrassingly failed to properly respond when nineteen-year-old quarterback Shane Morris suffered a clear head injury during the fourth quarter of the team’s 30-14 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

If you have not yet seen it, the full video of the incident is worth watching in order to entirely grasp how foolishly Hoke and his staff handled the situation. With 11:30 remaining in a 30-7 game, Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran, leading with the crown of his helmet, charged and leveled Morris, a highly regarded sophomore making his first career start and already struggling with a leg injury from just two plays prior. Per the NCAA’s targeting rule, Cockran should have been called for a personal foul, ejected from the game and suspended for the first half of the next game. Morris rose and, even with the assistance of his teammates, could hardly stand up straight,  yet somehow he remained in the game for the ensuing first down. After throwing an incomplete pass, Morris struggled to simply look at the sideline for the play call and was finally replaced by Devin Gardner.

But the ridiculousness does not end. After Gardner’s helmet was pulled off on his third play, he was required to exit the game by rule. Hoke could have either called a timeout and allowed Gardner to continue or substituted able-bodied Russell Bellomy to take a snap, either of which is a clearly superior choice to what actually happened. Just moments after the gruesome blow to the head – far less time than it takes for the NFL to administer its 8-12 minute concussion protocol – Morris hobbled off the bench like a zombie onto the field, uninhibited by anyone wearing maize and blue. I have watched the video a handful of times and am still horrified every time I see this.

Later, Morris left for the locker room on a cart due to – wait for it – his leg injury. To this day, Michigan insists Morris left the game after “aggravating an injury to his leg,” as Hoke said in a statement on Sunday. Michigan has still made it unclear whether Morris received a concussion, but whether he actually sustained one is completely irrelevant.

Perhaps worse than the situation itself is Michigan’s failure to admit wrongdoing. Hoke said after the game, “Well, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if he might have had a concussion or not. I don’t know that and that wasn’t something — Shane’s a pretty competitive tough kid and Shane wanted to be the quarterback and so believe me, if he didn’t want to be, he would have come to the sideline or stayed down.” Now re-read the first paragraph of this column.

Hoke’s expectation that Morris had the ability or willingness to make the conscious decision to pull himself from the game is ridiculous. From the beginning of our years, we learn that safety always comes first, a notion that carries into coaching. Protecting the health of young men is the absolute baseline qualification for a collegiate football coach, and Hoke failed to meet that on Saturday. Although Hoke asserts that he does not control who plays, he clearly mishandled his oversight responsibility as head coach.

In a sports media world full of poorly reasoned “FIRE THE COACH” hot takes, the only foolish hot take here would be to believe that Hoke and Athletic Director Dave Brandon deserve their jobs, seeing that Michigan has done little about it beyond a belated apology. Although I am fairly certain Hoke is a smart and kind man, I find it hard to fathom that a family could send its eighteen-year-old son under Hoke’s care after Saturday. If player health is somehow not vital to Brandon’s program, then perhaps lifelong diehards’ boycotting games will push him to make a move.

Thankfully, in another Big Ten game last Saturday, we saw Northwestern’s medical staff firmly react to sophomore cornerback Matthew Harris after a scary hit from Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Trainers immediately ran onto the field and, after presumably testing Harris for head and neck injuries, placed him on a backboard and drove him to the hospital. Fortunately, Harris cleared all tests and was able to return to Evanston with the team, and Pat Fitzgerald hopes Harris can play on Saturday against Wisconsin.

NU’s staff deserves credit for its optimal response, particularly after we had the misfortune of seeing how horribly a staff can treat a potentially major head injury. We can only hope that other coaching and training staffs will learn from Michigan’s mishandling of Morris’ head injury and properly respond to similarly dangerous hits that threaten the lives of young athletes.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].