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Md. regents must wake up to the dangers of intercollegiate football

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When the regents of the University System of Maryland meet on Friday, they need to add to their agenda a discussion of Derek Sheely, the Frostburg State University student who died two years ago of head trauma sustained in football practice.

Last month, Mr. Sheely's family filed a complaint against two Frostburg football coaches alleging that their son's death resulted from the coaches' conducting dangerous helmet-to-helmet "Oklahoma-style" tackling drills over three days. These drills, they allege, were so violent that they caused Mr. Sheely to sustain a bleeding gash on his forehead on the first day.

The Sheelys allege that the football coaches encouraged their son to continue the drills without being evaluated for a concussion by the team's athletic trainer. The athletic trainer is also named in the suit. All three defendants continue to work in the same positions at Frostburg.

If the regents are aware of Mr. Sheely's death, of the suit his family has filed, or of the broader issues of concussions in college football and other sports, they have not acknowledged it publicly. The minutes of the regents' public meetings since August 2011 reflect no discussion of Mr. Sheely's death, nor any discussion of concussions in intercollegiate football.

That's despite increasing public alarm over the long-term risk that repetitive head blows in football may lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) not only in retired NFL players but also in college football players, for example, Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide in April 2010. Repetitive head blows in football can lead to shorter-term altered brain function, even in players who are not diagnosed to have sustained a concussion, and such altered brain function can take months to return to baseline.

On September 28, 2012, 13 months after Mr. Sheely's death, the regents did adopt a requirement that Maryland universities report regularly on their intercollegiate athletics programs, including data such as student participants' academic performance and financial aspects of the programs. They did not, however, require any reporting on concussions or other injuries that students sustain from participating in intercollegiate athletics.

By law, the regents are required to invite Gov. Martin O'Malley, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, and Comptroller Peter Franchot to each of their meetings. I urge those officials to take them up on the offer and to develop leadership roles on the issue of intercollegiate athlete safety. If you will recall, in 2011 Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett exercised a similar role to lead the Board of Trustees for Penn State University to address the child abuse scandal related to Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.

The regents need to start discussing whether football is being played safely at Frostburg and the system's other campuses. They should also adopt limits on full contact football practices similar to those embraced by the Ivy League, the PAC-12 Conference and the NFL. The NCAA has declined to adopt such limits. The NCAA also does not investigate or enforce its existing rules regarding concussions. Under these circumstances, the regents' apparent deference to the NCAA amounts to an abdication of their responsibility to keep Maryland students safe when they participate in interscholastic sports.

Finally, the regents need to evaluate whether it is appropriate for football and other sports programs to be covered by the limited immunity from tort liability that Maryland law provides to state institutions and their personnel. Under Maryland law, the liability of a state agency like the Board of Regents for tort damages is capped at $200,000.

School personnel, that is, coaches, athletic directors, university presidents, the chancellor and regents themselves, are only liable for torts — like a student dying in a school-organized football practice from dangerous drills — if their conduct is malicious or grossly negligent. For ordinary negligence, they get a free pass.

The regents need to ask whether the limited immunity has created perverse financial incentives for the universities it supervises. Football and other sports programs represent significant a revenue source and an opportunity to market a school's "brand." If liability for a tragedy like Derek Sheely's death is capped at $200,000, does this represent nothing more than a small operating cost? If the University System of Maryland had to obtain liability insurance on the private market for the football program at Frostburg, would an insurer be willing to provide coverage? If so, would the premiums be affordable? Would a private insurer condition coverage on the Board of Regents banning the kind of dangerous football tackling drills that the Sheely family allege caused their son's death?

These serious issues may be beyond the regents' willingness to address. That is why Governor O'Malley needs to step in.

Tom Hearn is a parent from Montgomery County. Two years ago, after his son sustained a concussion playing junior varsity football, he advocated that the Maryland State Board of Education take steps to address concussions in high school sports. He has no relationship with the Sheely family and the views here are his own. His email is ConcussionMCPS@verizon.net. Twitter: @ConcussionMCPS. This op-ed is adapted from a letter sent to the regents in August, which is available here.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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