Luke DeCock

ACC’s eyes from above a step toward better player safety

So many of the hurried changes to college sports have that barn-door-after-the-horse-is-gone feeling, a desperate attempt to forestall the wave of lawsuits and other athletic activism that has erupted in recent years.

Giving athletes the same cost-of-attendance benefits as students on academic scholarships was as sensible as it was long overdue, even if the athletic community at large had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century and is still complaining about having to pay for it.

On Monday, the ACC announced it has adopted one improvement that is neither forced or overdue. It’s actually timely, and perhaps even forward-thinking: The conference’s application of the NCAA’s new medical-observer protocol for football.

The NCAA last week adopted an experimental rule allowing conferences to use a medical observer to monitor for injuries, not specifically but obviously potential concussions, with the power to stop play if necessary.

The SEC will use one athletic trainer to monitor both teams, in communication with the referee. The ACC’s athletic directors voted Sunday night to adopt a different protocol, with one member of the medical staff for each team in the press box, in communication not with the referee but his sideline.

The issue isn’t whether this is a good idea. It is. It’s a no-brainer. The issue is whether what the ACC is doing goes far enough.

The SEC – and presumably Big Ten, which co-sponsored the NCAA legislation – will let its observers halt the game if needed. The ACC decided not to give its observers that ability, which leaves a narrow time frame for an observer to identify a potentially injured player, communicate with the sideline and remove that player from the game.

“We didn’t really see the necessity in that,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “The medical observer should be able in talking to the sidelines to have a timeout called or pull a player from the game. But this is all experimental. We’ll see how it actually works in real time. If there needs to be some adjustment to that then we’ll see. This is where we felt was appropriate. It’s a little different than what some other conferences are doing.”

It doesn’t happen often that a clearly staggered player returns to the huddle without the medical staff on the sideline noticing, but it happens often enough that conferences have seen the wisdom of adding an extra set of eyes in the press box. And in those situations, it’s a fair question whether the ACC’s process will work quickly enough to help that player, especially in an era of hurry-up offenses and quick tempo.

In their meeting Sunday night to debate and approve the observer protocol, the ACC’s athletic directors decided not to go as far as the NCAA would allow, focusing on a team-based model instead of a neutral, officiating-based model.

“This seems sufficient,” N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said. “It’s a common-sense approach.”

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said there are other benefits to the ACC plan.

“There’s so much chaos on the sidelines that it can be confusing,” Cunningham said. “Someone out of the chaos may have a better perspective, especially if they have a view of a TV.”

The far greater priority was having someone doing the assessments who was aware of each individual player’s medical history, which led them to the two-person, two-team model the Pac-12 used on a limited basis last season and is expanding to all games this season.

“The important thing to us was that our observer was connected to the history of the student-athlete,” Pittsburgh athletic director Scott Barnes said. “We need an observer who’s part of our staff and knows the issues involved. That was our primary concern.”

And while there’s some expense involved in bringing an extra staff member on the road, it’s relatively minor compared to the benefits.

Cunningham said North Carolina typically travels with two or three doctors and may reallocate one to the press box.

“There might be an extra hotel room,” Yow said, “but so what?”

It is a small price to pay for an improved level of player safety and a change that is, for once in college sports, as much proactive as reactive.