Sunday, January 03, 2010

Why Leach Needed to Be Fired

In the aftermath of the firing of head football coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech University, some sports writers and bloggers have defended the coach, arguing that his dismissal offers proof of the softness of our culture and young athletes. They are wrong, and the university took the only option that it could given the situation.

While news accounts have differed to some degree, it is generally agreed that wide receiver Adam James had suffered a concussion and, as a result of his medical condition, told the coach that he was unable to practice until his symptoms abated. Coach Leach responded by punishing the receiver, forcing him to remain standing in a dark room for an extended period of time. A reasonable interpretation of Mr. Leach's actions would be that he intended this punishment to also send a message to the rest of the team about the need to get back on the field after an injury. Even if that is not the case, he clearly did not take the injury as seriously as he should have, and the problem was a serious one, indeed.

While the issue has been long neglected, medical and athletic leaders are finally paying more attention to the impact of multiple concussions on student and professional athletes. Some former athletes, by the time they are in their 30's or 40's, are having problems with severe memory loss, emotional problems, and even apparent symptoms of Alzheimer's. After years of ignoring or denying it, the NFL is finally admitting that there is a problem and is looking for solutions to protect professional athletes.

At the high school and college level, athletes have been put at risk by 1) a general failure to properly diagnose concussive injuries; and 2) encouraging athletes to get back on the field of play before they should do so. All too frequently, concussions are dismissed as "having your bell rung," and kids are encouraged to keep playing in spite of having not healed from neurological injuries with long term implications.

For links to numerous articles describing the problems, see here.

With regard to many types of injuries, it may be heroic for young athletes to play through the pain and help their team win. That is not the case with brain injuries. Mr. James had a concussive injury, and Mr. Leach's reaction to it was grossly inappropriate. Offered the opportunity to apologize, he refused. Absent evidence that he understands what he did wrong, he should not be working with student athletes.

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