Mike London played through concussions. His son Brandon, a Canadian Football League receiver, recently sustained his second. A former co-worker sued the NFL over concussions that he claims led to anxiety, severe depression and thoughts of suicide.
So London, the University of Virginia's head coach and a former NFL assistant, appreciates the ongoing research and dialogue regarding brain injuries in sports, particularly football.
London, 53, played high school football on the Peninsula, at Tabb and Bethel, “in the old days, when if you got your bell rung you just shook your head, and they gave you a salt tablet or an aspirin, and you went back in with a headache. That was just part of the culture.
“Now, having been at all levels as far as coaching and having sons play at all levels, and the information that has been talked about and talked about and dissected … I'm (for) whatever the doctors say, because you get into a scary situation when you try to say, ‘Hey listen, be tough.'
“As a coach, you never want to … give medical advice. You have to separate the coach part from what's in the best interest of the player.”
The Chronicle's poll indicates that many of London's peers, their judgment sadly clouded by pursuit of victory, struggle with that separation.
Medical professionals are bombarded by survey requests, and the head football trainers at Virginia and Virginia Tech, Kelli Pugh and Mike Goforth, said they are not sure whether they responded to the Chronicle's. But both were adamant about the cooperation they receive from coaches.
“I work with a good man who has never put any pressure on me one time to put a kid back out there too soon,” Goforth said of Hokies coach Frank Beamer. “Now I've seen it happen in other sports, and I've heard my colleagues (at other football programs) talk about it. …
“At some places you feel like your job is on the line.”
Goforth earned his master's at Tech and has worked at the school since 1998, all under Beamer. This is Pugh's 11th year at Virginia, where she's worked alongside Al Groh and London.
Pugh said neither coach has ever attempted to compromise medical protocol but described a general inclination among the profession “to have all players available at all times, whether it's a concussion, ankle sprain or hamstring injury. They always want things to heal faster than nature intended. …
“I think as a staff at U.Va., we've tried to be ahead of the curve on student-athlete welfare on a number of issues, including concussions. We were doing annual baseline neuro-cognitive assessments before the NCAA (recommended) it. We had a concussion policy headed up by a physician medical director in place before the NCAA required it. So as a medical staff, we've been having these conversations for a number of years.
“The one piece that the NCAA put in that's been nice is the mandatory education component. Now annually we have to sit down with every coach (and athlete) in every sport and review an education sheet.”
A baseline test is administered during preseason and again if a concussion is suspected. Results are compared to not only diagnose but also to help determine whether an athlete is fit to return.
A 2010 NCAA study found two-thirds of schools administered the tests, which measure simple and complex reaction time, and last month two members of Congress introduced legislation requiring them.
“You can have people who are lazy on their baseline, thinking they can scam (the) test later,” Pugh said. “You can certainly have student-athletes slack a little bit on their baseline, thinking that, ‘Oh, I'll do better after the injury.' Which is why some coaches don't like the idea of baseline testing. …
“The thing that's nice for us is that it's just one more piece of information we can use. … That's never going to be the absolute yes or no. You can do well on that and still have a headache, too, and obviously not be ready to play sports again.”
Pugh and Goforth have had to tell players their careers were over due to repeated concussions. Privacy concerns prohibit them from identifying the athletes.