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College football’s problem with player health

Breaking down Afolabi Laguda’s injury and the decision to send him back onto the field.

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NCAA Football: Colorado at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

In Colorado’s loss to UCLA on Saturday night, the most horrifying play of the game wasn’t the fake field goal or the multiple dropped passes in the end zone — it was the cheap shot hit on Buffaloes captain Afolabi Laguda in the 3rd quarter. Though Laguda was medically cleared, this play and the decision to send Laguda back onto the field later in the game, shed light on the issues with college football concussion and general injury protocol.

In case you were lucky enough to not see the play, here’s a quick recap. Laguda, a team captain, was in pursuit of the UCLA ballcarrier, but once that runner went out of bounds, Laguda slowed down because the play was over. But UCLA’s Jordan Lasley took this opportunity to blindside hit Laguda as hard as he could, and because he aimed high, Laguda flipped backwards and landed extremely hard on the back of his head. Laguda remained down on the field for a couple minutes and had to be helped off the field. He was examined on the sideline and in the locker room and passed concussion tests.

In the moment, it looked obvious that Laguda was, at the very least, concussed. The way he landed on the ground, how dazed he looked on the ground and later on the sideline, everything suggested he suffered a brain injury on what coach Mike MacIntyre called a “very vicious, malicious hit.” Despite his injuries suffered on the play, Laguda was medically cleared and sent back onto the field in the fourth quarter. On Monday, MacIntyre said, “[Laguda] is really, really sore and beat up,” and that Laguda feels like was in a “car wreck.”

After the game, one reporter wrote, “Laguda showed plenty toughness, too, in leaving the game with an apparent head/neck injury after a cheap shot by a UCLA defender, only to return to play a short time later after being cleared by medical personnel.”

This issue isn’t about toughness, it’s about players’ health. Laguda isn’t being paid to play through these injuries; he’s playing for the opportunity to be paid later in life. His future earnings aren’t dependent on whether or not Colorado won or lost; they’re more so dependent on his health. And even away from the football field, this decision had no regard for his future health.

If you’re not familiar with the NFL’s concussion problem and the debilitating and often lethal effects of CTE, there’s a significant chance that this will be what drives football to extinction. Football players risk their bodies and they also risk their current and future mental health. In addition to countless undiagnosed micro-concussions football players suffer every season, anyone who steps onto the field is one play away from a severe concussion that will not only debilitate them in the short-term, but affect their memory, temperament and even their livelihood later in life. Look no further than former Buffaloes Ryan Miller, whose life has been ravaged by concussions, or Rashaan Salaam, who showed “all the symptoms” of CTE before his heartbreaking death (الله يرحمه).

Laguda hasn’t been diagnosed with a concussion — he was reportedly carted to the locker room with a leg injury, not with a head injury — but it’s concerning that he wasn’t held out for precautionary reasons. Laguda was clearly shaken and he’s feeling the hurt right now. He shouldn’t have come back onto the field fueled by adrenaline, and the decision by the medical staff to clear him was a decision made without any thought about his long-term health.

Of course, this problem is a college football problem, not a Colorado problem. Earlier this season, Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp suffered an apparent head injury on an unnecessary roughness penalty on Buffs, but after an injury timeout was called, the Bears coaching staff put Knipp onto the field after a single play. In no way was there enough time for the UNC medical staff to even begin testing their player before he was called back into action. You could almost guarantee UNC would’ve let him stay in if there wasn’t a rule that required injured players to miss the play following an injury timeout.

Laguda ended up not being concussed, and Knipp turned out fine, but this problem of concussions and player health comes back up every time a player is put back into a game despite the possibility of a potentially severe injury. There needs to change on this front, and it needs to come sooner rather than too late.