Columnist: Football can be risky, but safety is priority

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2016

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

There is that moment when collisions on the football field poignantly remind you that football is a violent game.

The game has redeeming qualities, however, which should continue to be underscored. Football is akin to driving a car. Every time you get in a car and drive to the next corner, you are engaging in an enterprise that is potentially far more dangerous than playing football.

You drive a car, bad things can happen. You play football, there is risk.

No longer are coaches teaching kids to lead with their head. Water, on the practice field, is as plentiful today as beer at a fraternity party. When you get “your bell rung” you don’t correctly count the athletic trainer’s four fingers and dash back on the field. The coach doesn’t decide when you are ready to return to the game — that decision is made by the athletic trainer and team physician.

There is a dedicated attempt to make the game safer today. Improved equipment has helped. Coaches are teaching kids to protect themselves.

Educational programs make for greater understanding of the facts. If you are driving your car and a collision takes place, the facts are that your seatbelt keeps you from crashing into the windshield.

Your body stops, protected by the seat belt, but your brain keeps going. Your brain crashes into your skull. Even though your body may be safe, your brain may be compromised.

Players are being taught to keep their heads up. See where you are going, see what you are going to hit. Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster today. They can seriously damage another player without intent to bring about bodily harm.

Charley Trippi, nearing 95, was as tough as you could expect in football. When I asked him recently if players hit any harder today that in his day, he responded by saying, “I don’t think so. There is only one way to hit and that is as hard as you can.” However, Trippi played with a leather helmet much of his career, which meant that he led with his shoulder and not his head.

In a recent conversation with Jeff Van Note, who played 18 years in the NFL, he “noted” that during this time he used his head “as a battering ram.” Not a day goes by that Jeff does not exercise his mind. He reads books and magazines and works multiple crossword puzzles every day.

When Marion Campbell left the NFL as a player and coach after 35 years, he told NFL brass that to eliminate the concussion problem “go back to leather helmets.” The University of New Hampshire got a lot of attention last year when they practiced without helmets. Safety in football has never received more emphasis than today.

Bicarri Rambo, several years ago in a Georgia game versus Auburn between the hedges, experienced a violent collision and a subsequent concussion, but there was no helmet contact. Your body stops, but your brain keeps moving.

When tragedy occurs, you become acutely aware of the stress and complications. Familiar to those who follow Georgia athletics are the spinal cord injuries of baseball players Chance Veazy and Johnathan Taylor, and Devon Gales of Southern University.

All three cases have a different twist. Chance Veazy was injured in a nonathletic motor vehicle accident. He is well taken care of because his parents are in the insurance business and have coverage that will allow their son to live a normal life.

Because his injury did not involve athletic participation, neither Georgia nor the NCAA catastrophic injury insurance policy could be utilized. To assist, the Georgia Athletic Association helped organize fundraising activities on Chance’s behalf.

Chance has rehabilitated himself mentally as well as physically. He enjoys fishing and hunting, having hunted elk in Colorado’s back country.

Since outfielder Johnathan Taylor’s injury came in a baseball game on campus, Georgia’s catastrophic insurance coverage has taken care of all of Jonathan’s needs from handicap construction in his home to handicap vans. He also has financial compensation with the UGA catastrophic policy to cover any additional needs.

He will be able to live without financial challenge. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Georgia and has been appointed by the governor to the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Service Board.

Devon Gales, who suffered a spinal injury in Sanford Stadium, is the one whose life is a serious financial challenge. Southern did not have catastrophic coverage.

Devon was the beneficiary of the NCAA policy, but that will not cover what he will need in life: multiple handicap vans, home modification and a cost of living that will require money beyond the family’s means.

The NCAA policy, which has to address coverage for thousands of athletes, will only pay for one handicap van, for example. Devon will need several wheelchairs and other medical equipment in his lifetime. That is why Georgia has participated in fundraisers for him and his family.

Georgia athletes have the best of insurance coverage for catastrophic coverage for athletes. Unfortunately, Southern did not have this type coverage, which is very costly.

Nonetheless, Bulldog coaches and officials have provided as much support and care as possible and will continue to do so.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.