College football fans are breathlessly following every incremental movement from this summer's meetings about a new postseason format. Understandably so. But what could radically change the very nature of the sport we love might be happening in the research labs and academic corridors of the Big Ten and Ivy League.
The two conferences announced Tuesday that they would collaborate on a joint research project that appears unprecedented in its scale. The topic: concussions in sports, and particularly football.
There's no bigger threat to the popularity and continued viability of football as we know it than concussions. It is a huge issue already in the NFL, which has been sued by former players who claim the league concealed the long-term effects of head injuries. The football world was rocked by the suicide last year of Dave Duerson, who expressed in his final wish that his brain be studied for concussion effects. Research has shown that many former NFL players, like Duerson, suffer from CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's the first thing many people thought of when Junior Seau committed suicide, though there hasn't been any evidence yet of that being a cause.
Despite all the recent discussion of the topic, our knowledge of brain injuries is in many ways still limited. Most of the research done on concussions has come after the person affected has died.
"What’s missing, even though there's been some good research, is a longitudinal study governed by common protocol," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com. "Measuring before college, in college and post-college."
That's where the Big Ten/Ivy League study has a chance to be extremely valuable. With all the athletes spread out over the two leagues, researchers can have access to information about head trauma before, during and after physical competitions. Both leagues have already been doing work in this field, with players volunteering to be studied. And it's something players should want to do, as it can help not only them but future athletes.
“It will always have to be voluntary," said Dr. Dennis Molfese, the director of the center for brain, biology and behavior at Nebraska. "At Nebraska, we started a women’s soccer study and a study with football. Of 100 players, we had 65 of those players agree to let us contact them about participating in our study. So it’s a pretty good response rate. We’ll probably do better as the study becomes more well known."
Work by Big Ten researchers has already led to important new guidelines about when a player can return to the field after a concussion. If nothing else, simply making players aware of the dangers of those injuries can make a major impact.
"This isn't playing through a twisted ankle or a bum elbow," said Robin Harris, Ivy League executive director. "This has life-altering consequences, potentially, if you're playing through a head injury. So a lot of our recommendations ultimately are about education and awareness."
The study could also lead to better treatment and earlier detection of CTE and other concussion-related problems. And ultimately, the links that are discovered between complications from concussion and high-impact hits in football could change the way we view the game, the way the game is played and perhaps even whether we'd want our children participating in such an activity. That's why you'd better believe that anyone who cares about the sport, from the NFL to the NCAA to Pop Warner, will be paying close attention to what the Big Ten and Ivy League researchers discover.
We've spent a lot of time in the past year or two writing about conference realignment and the importance of being a part of this or that league. This concussion study shows the power of a very different kind of conference alignment, one that may prove more vital to the game's future than any four-team playoff model.