the national interest

Behind the Michigan Football Concussion Disaster

In this Sept. 27, 2014, photo, Michigan quarterback Shane Morris lays on the field after taking a hit in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Early Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, roughly 12 hours after embattled Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he'd been given no indication that Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion, athletic director Dave Brandon revealed in a post-midnight statement that the sophomore did appear to have sustained one.
The visual metaphor here may be too subtle. Photo: Tony Ding/AP/Corbis

Saturday, University of Michigan quarterback Shane Morris took a vicious hit in the head late in a loss to the University of Minnesota. Morris started staggering around, was briefly held up by a teammate when he appeared nearly to collapse, and another teammate frantically waved to the sideline for him to be replaced. ESPN announcers expressed shock that Morris was not removed. Morris eventually left, but then, incredibly, came back in the game for one more play, to the incredulity of ESPN and the aghast crowd.

Yesterday afternoon, head coach Brady Hoke told reporters that Morris had not been diagnosed with a concussion, and that he would have practiced the night before if not for an ankle sprain. Then, at around one this morning, athletic director Dave Brandon released a statement conceding that Morris had indeed been concussed. Whether this catastrophic bungling represents gross incompetence or a sinister cover-up, or perhaps a combination of the two, requires some grasp of the strange dysfunction that has set in the program, which I’ve followed very closely as a lifelong, albeit currently disgruntled, fan.

Brady Hoke is an extremely simple, old-school football coach, but he is publicly inarticulate to a degree that makes him oddly inscrutable. He speaks in rambling, ill-formed clichés. When the football program’s quote of the week, sponsored by Chobani, required a contribution from Hoke, the athletic department flunky in charge of finding a suitable line was forced to string together a pair of sentence fragments:

This has created a debate around him similar to that surrounding George W. Bush, pitting acolytes who praise his humble manner and steady eye contact against discontents who consider his inability to formulate coherent thoughts a sign of a lack of intelligence and competence. Interpreting Hoke’s intentions once again circles back to a Chauncey Gardner–esque mystery that has always surrounded him. Stupidity, which used to be the main charge against Hoke, now turns out to be his best defense: Perhaps he did not know, and nobody bothered to tell him, that his player had been diagnosed with a concussion before he told reporters the opposite.

A second possibility, which is not mutually exclusive, is that the athletic department attempted a cover-up. Brian Cook, editor of mgoblog and an acerbic critic of the department, suggests that the department tried to force Michigan’s medical staff to lie or obfuscate about its diagnosis. (“I can’t say much without burning a source but I do want to say that the informational parts of this were known to me this morning. There is a reason this took so long, and the medical staff should be commended.”)

That the athletic department would take such an inexplicably reckless and unethical step is explicable if you understand the circumstances surrounding Brandon. A former Michigan football player, who made a fortune as the CEO of Domino’s Pizza, Brandon returned to run the athletic department, where his megalomania and Fortune 500 ethos have steadily alienated the tradition-minded community. Over the summer, Michigan sports historian John U. Bacon, whom Brandon banished from the press box for unflattering coverage in a 2011 book about the program, wrote a viral column denouncing various ways Brandon has turned the Michigan football game experience into a gaudy, professionalized atmosphere. (Before Brandon, the program never blasted out pop music, gouged ticket holders, or, well, sent out weekly quotes sponsored by Chobani.) Brandon also exerts heavy and unique control over the program, even going so far as to sit in on weekly film sessions with the coaching staff.

Discontent with Brandon has boiled over. In July, the university regents took the unusual step of turning down Brandon’s routine budget request for a fireworks display at two football games. The vote was an obvious shot across Brandon’s bow; one of the regents gave a speech closely echoing Bacon’s indictment of Brandon. Brandon was already rumored before this week to be clinging to his job. It is highly plausible that he knew the revelation that Hoke kept an obviously concussed player on the field would — in combination with other issues, including the cratering football team — cost him his job.

It is possible that Hoke lied yesterday about the concussion diagnosis. It is also possible that he was instructed to lie by Brandon, or that he answered honestly because he was left completely out of the loop on an issue that was already the subject of national news coverage. Brady Hoke may very well be just that incompetent, and Dave Brandon may very well be just that ruthless.