Pac-12 putting head trauma front and center

Larry Scott had already put check marks to a pair of major to-dos: getting the new network up and running and putting a conference championship game in place.

All the while, he also knew there was an underlying issue that will eventually change the way football is played in this country: head injuries. And Scott wanted his league out in front of it. But he didn’t know the best tack. Then at a meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last December, Scott started hearing about the studies they were doing in the league and their involvement with USA Football and the “Heads Up Football” initiative.

“I think that meeting really caused me to reflect on whether we were doing enough as a conference and whether we could be doing more,” Scott said. “There had been so much discussion nationally, but when myself and a few other commissioners met with Roger Goodell, that was really a pivotal moment.”

It was also the genesis for the league’s new limited-contact policy in practice, which is officially in effect for the 2013 season. Following that December meeting, Scott consulted with Pac-12 the school presidents, athletic directors and coaches and they began to hammer out ideas for how they could reduce head trauma.

“There was no resistance from coaches on the idea,” Scott said. “They all believe it’s the right thing to do. We had a lot of debate and discussion on what the policy should be. They are all doing less than they’re entitled to do anyway and they are all very consciences. They supported the idea of us taking the lead on this.”

One of the biggest supporters of the new policy no longer plays football. Former UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore, who retired before the 2012 season, says if the policy was in place four years ago, he might still be in the game.

“In practice, this is where you see the majority of the damage occur,” said Larimore, who suffered at least seven concussions that he knows about. “There were definitely numerous occasions throughout my career where you start practice with a hitting drill or a circuit of hitting drills. When you do that throughout the course of a year, you can really add to the toll and the wear on the head.”

Larimore, UCLA's 2011 defensive MVP who probably would have gotten some NFL looks, is instead getting ready to launch an online platform where anyone who has suffered head injuries can come and share their stories. His site, myheadhurts.co [sic] is scheduled to launch next week.

Other conferences have concussions on their radar. The Big Ten joined up with the Ivy League last year for a joint study and earlier this week threw its support behind Heads Up Football. But the Pac-12 is the only league to have an actual mandate that limits the amount of hitting that can be done during practice.

“I think a lot of schools and conferences are going to look at what we’re doing,” Scott said. “I’d be surprised if a year from now, before the 2014 season, you don’t see other conferences adopt a similar policy.”

It’s been noted since Scott announced the policy at the Pac-12 Media Day that most schools across the country are already following similar practices. The Pac-12 is just the first to make it an official mandate.

“I think everybody is a winner in this because this is about player safety and educating our players and we are taking the proper steps so that player safety is No. 1,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We have seen the NFL take the lead and we see the Pac-12 lead that in college football.”

All this comes too late for Larimore, who took a medical retirement during training camp a year ago and graduated from UCLA in the fall. He continues to suffer from the effects of his head injuries -- though he didn’t want to get into specifics. He’s taking part in symposiums and hopes to spread the word and encourage others to share their stories through his site.

“Having left football, it’s hard to turn around and point the finger at football,” Larimore said. “I loved it. I still do. It was a big part of my life. I want to help focus on education and spread awareness so others will know.”

There will always be critics who say players know the risk and the dangers of playing football. In so many words, they know what they are getting into. And Larimore concedes that he accepted those risks. But there are also unknowns which the Pac-12’s new policy might help alleviate.

“For a long time there were huge gaps in knowledge. A huge lack of information,” he said. “In some cases, there is no way you know what you’re getting into. I don’t think anybody can point out and plan out every little hit. But every hit matters. It’s cumulative. After one (concussion), you’re more likely to get another one. What about one practice where your trainer forgets to properly put air in your helmet? That’s not knowing what you signed up for.

“What has been known as a concussion and what is currently known as a concussion has dramatically changed within the last few years. A lot of those sub-concussive hits may be real concussions. And I think a lot of time hitting in practice contributes to the damage.”