Player Suicide

Will the NCAA Let Ohio State’s Kosta Karageorge Die in Vain?

An Ohio State football player killed himself after saying he was ‘all f----- up’ from a head injury. Even the NFL has stronger rules to protect players from this.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Police found the body of Ohio State University football player Kosta Karageorge, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, inside a dumpster on Sunday, a block from his home. Karageorge, a walk-on defensive tackle and three-year varsity wrestler, had been missing since 2 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Karageorge’s family believes the apparent suicide may be related to the concussions their son had suffered. His mother, Susan, told NBC4i in Columbus that he “has a history of sports-related concussions” and “had a few spells of being extremely confused.” His family believes he may be disoriented from a head injury he sustained last month, according to his sister.

Karageorge also sent his mother a text message at 1:25 a.m. Wednesday, shortly before he disappeared, in which he said, “Sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all fucked up.”

An investigation is ongoing, but Sgt. Rich Weiner told reporters: “At this time, there’s a lot of questions that we’re still trying to work out. But he was found inside of the dumpster, the handgun was found inside of the dumpster with him.”

One of those questions must be: Did Ohio State know he was “all fucked up” from his concussions?

I think we can assume that Karageorge’s family will demand a thorough autopsy that includes testing for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is the cumulative effect of distinct traumatic incidents over time that result in brain disease. Diagnosis of CTE is often considered to be specialized and has to occur at a designated institution like Boston University. After all, not every county medical examiner can spot CTE on microscopic slides.

Should CTE be found, Karageorge will join Andre Waters, Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, Terry Long, Junior Seau, Paul Oliver, Shane Dronett, and Jovan Belcher in an ever-growing list of athletes with CTE who took their own lives and were wracked by memory loss, disorientation, cognitive issues, mood and personality changes, and crushing depression.

And yes, this is the point where we mention that even the NFL admits that nearly three in 10 former players will develop some form of debilitating brain injury in their lifetimes as a result of playing football. Concussion-related illnesses are usually presumed to be an issue for older, retired players, but Karageorge’s death at age 22 would set that myth aflame.

Then again, you would hope that notion would have gone the way of the dodo bird after a 29-year-old soccer player was found to have CTE after his autopsy, and an Olympic wrestler retired at 22.

Recently, the NCAA actually strengthened its concussion protocols as part of a settlement agreement for a class-action lawsuit brought by a dozen former college football players. They claimed that the lack of an overarching policy on concussions put their health at risk. As Patrick Hruby outlined at Sports on Earth, the changes are for the most part positive. Moving forward, the NCAA will:

• Institute preseason baseline neuropsychological testing for all athletes;

• Require all schools to have medical personnel with “training in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of concussion” present at all contact sport games, and also “available” at all contact sport practices;

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• Create a concussion reporting system for all cases of diagnosed concussions and their resolution, and also a whistleblower system that allows athletes and their parents to report concerns about concussion management directly to the NCAA;

• Provide NCAA-approved concussion education and training to athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, and faculty;

• Donate $5 million over a 10-year period to concussion research;

• Prohibit any athlete diagnosed with a concussion from returning to play or practice on the same day they were concussed.

Sounds good on paper, but it’s utterly toothless.

“It doesn't require the association to immediately adopt the listed protections,” Hruby wrote. “Instead, it simply states that the NCAA’s Executive Committee ‘will recommend that the governing bodies of Divisions I, II, and III pass legislation requiring member schools to certify that they have a concussion management plan in place’ that meets the same requirements.”

It’s a set of guidelines, not rules that have to be followed lest schools be hit with sanctions and/or the potential loss of scholarships and revenue. You know, the kind of punishment doled out for players receiving illegal pizza or excessive pasta, or daring to profit off their autographs.

Even the NFL—the beleaguered, denial-ridden NFL—has managed to take the decision-making process out of the individual teams’ hands by instituting specific, league-wide rules regarding testing, game-day availability, and treatment. Amazingly, NCAA athletes, a substantially larger group, and one whose members are often forced to fend for themselves on medical bills and lack the potential for financial earnings or even a union lobbying on behalf of their interests, are in some ways worse off than their professional brethren.

Furthermore, the NCAA settlement only pays for diagnosis, not treatment. Should Karageorge’s family decide to take Ohio State to court, the odds would be stacked against them.

Even though individuals would not be barred from taking the NCAA to court, attorney Jay Edelson, who represents one of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, told The New York Times: “It’s going to be tough to find a lawyer to fight against the NCAA’s machinery when you’re talking about only $20,000 in damages. This is going to snuff out the vast majority of claims.”

The treatment of concussed players in college football made headlines earlier this season when the University of Michigan’s athletic director, David Brandon, resigned in large part over Head Coach Brady Hoke’s mind-boggling decision to send a clearly concussed quarterback back out onto the field.

Ohio State’s football coach, Urban Meyer, or Athletic Director Gene Smith must be made to pay a similar price should it be found that Karageorge was already suffering from some form of traumatic brain injury when he committed suicide, or if the school’s policy was in any way negligent. (Concussed patients must be prohibited from difficult mental tasks such as homework, tests, or football practice in order to fully recover.) That’s the only way the NCAA’s guidelines will be followed with the seriousness that concussions demand.

Because despite all the cheery talk from NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline—like “we have been and will continue to be committed to student-athlete safety, which is one of the NCAA’s foundational principles”—it isn’t close to being enough.