Richt: Concussions could change sport

MACON, Ga. -- Mark Richt remembers well -- as well as he can, given the circumstances -- the time Notre Dame safety Joey Browner knocked him cold as a true freshman Miami quarterback in 1978.

“He came on a safety blitz and I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do and I just kind of dropped back and got drilled,” Richt recalled of the play that came in the Hurricanes’ 20-0 loss in South Bend. “I saw stars and I was out.”

To this day, Richt does not know if he suffered a concussion on the play since head trauma was not treated as seriously 30 years ago as it is today.

“I don’t know, probably. Probably still am,” Richt said with a laugh when asked whether he was concussed by Browner’s hit. “It’s a new normal. Who knows how sharp I might have been if I didn’t take that shot.”

Richt and his colleagues in the sport realize now that concussions are no laughing matter.

Last week’s news that former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide made football-related head injuries a nationwide topic of discussion. Hundreds of former NFL players have suffered brain damage, dementia and assorted problems with depression that could be attributed to concussions from their playing careers. More than 1,500 of them are jointly suing the league, claiming that it hid the dangers of concussions from them.

“You know what, it’s probably going to have a lot bigger effect on the game than maybe anybody is imagining right now,” Richt said. “It’s just very hard to say. I think a lot of this litigation may change the game in one way, shape or form.”

After having several players suffer season- and career-ending injuries while covering kickoffs at Georgia, Richt has in the past tossed out the possibility of doing away with kickoff returns altogether.

He said Tuesday that it “is probably the one play that has the highest rate of speed with guys running into each other,” which might make it subject to increased scrutiny as college and professional football leaders look for ways to make football a safer sport.

But football by its nature is a violent game. Nobody would argue that improved safety would be a bad thing, but at issue is how to implement changes that won’t alter the sport beyond recognition and where to draw the line. Even the play-to-play collisions between offensive and defensive linemen could have a cumulative effect on players’ brain health, but that contact is a fundamental element of the game.

“They’re using their hats just about every play,” Richt said. “It’s not a long distance between the two men, but again, you do it over and over and over, I don’t know what the cumulative effect is.”

That is what football’s leaders must determine if they establish new guidelines that will affect current and future players. The game has already gone to great lengths to penalize the violent head shots that produce concussions. Now the leadership must determine whether to implement additional safety standards.

“Bottom line is when your hat, your helmet, is part of the striking point, those are collisions too, just not as violent,” Richt said.