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Terps QB Caleb Rowe's concussion raises more questions than answers, not just at Maryland

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There are more questions than answers about a system that allowed Maryland's quarterback to take two significant hits to the head in two minutes, which preceded both a concussion diagnosis and neck soreness.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland quarterback Caleb Rowe suffered a concussion somewhere at the end of the first half of the Terps' game against Indiana on Saturday, interim coach Mike Locksley said. In his Sunday teleconference with media, Locksley at first seemed to acknowledge that Rowe's injury came on this play:

Here's the exchange on Rowe's injury between Locksley and a reporter. A day earlier, Locksley had announced in his postgame press conference that Rowe was concussed. However, on Sunday, he pointed to the play before Rowe had exited the game - where he "came out for a play or two." That's the play above:

Reporter: "When you got a chance to go look at the tape in regards to Caleb, were you able to pinpoint on what play he was injured?"

Locksley: "We knew the play. He came out for a play or two after he took a knee to the head and was evaluated and then re-inserted."

His exchange on Sunday went on:

Reporter: "So, was there any lapse in the process to have him go back in after he had taken that knee to head?"

Locksley: "Yeah, I said that. I said Shane [Cockerille] actually went in and played two to three snaps. Finished the series."

Reporter: Caleb came back in after Shane did, didn't he?

Locksley: "Yeah, that’s what I said. He came out. He was evaluated. Shane came in. After Caleb’s evaluation, he went back out, and at halftime, he complained possibly of a headache, and they took him in for further evaluation and then ruled him out."

At this point, Locksley appeared to be referring to Rowe's concussion – the only injury Maryland had publicized. Numerous outlets reported it, including this one.

After that hit, Rowe returned to the game, and he immediately took a second hit to the head, this time through contact with the turf upon being tackled on another run. Here's his first snap back in action:

On Monday, new details emerged. In a Diamondback story, a Maryland team spokesman said Rowe's initial evaluation had been for "neck muscular soreness," not a concussion. The spokesman said Locksley, who'd only been asked about an injury and not a concussion, was referring to a neck issue.

Based on a video review, Rowe's evaluation by team medical staff lasted no more than 46 seconds. In that exmination, Maryland's doctors looked at Rowe and cleared him of concussion-like symptoms, the spokesman said. Rowe returned to the huddle about 1 minute and 10 seconds after taking the first hit to his head and neck area, and the two high hits came well within a two-minute period.

"Caleb Rowe left the game on his own accord in the first half and was evaluated for neck muscular soreness," wrote Dustin Semonavick, Maryland's assistant athletic director for football communications. "He simultaneously was asked about head symptoms by Maryland's medical staff at which time Rowe did not exhibit symptoms of concussions. He was cleared to return to the game."

Fortunately, Rowe was back at practice on Tuesday.

On video, it does appear medical staff are checking out Rowe's neck muscles.

What we know with certainty, given Maryland's new statement, is just that Rowe was concussed at some point. Locksley said Tuesday he doesn't know exactly when it happened. So, based on Maryland's new statements this week, it's not certain whether Rowe's concussion came on either the first hit he took or the second one at the end of the half. It could have been either – or some other time.

On some level, it barely matters. Rowe has a concussion, and he played five snaps after taking the second of the two hits. Here are those five snaps, sequenced together:

Rowe, who stayed upright on each of those snaps, was not hit on any of the five plays after the two hits.

Since Rowe's concussion diagnosis came at halftime, there are a few logical possibilities.

  • One is that Rowe suffered his concussion on the sideline as the half was ending, or on his way to the locker room.
  • Another is that he somehow suffered his concussion on one of those last five snaps - even though he wasn't hit on any of them.
  • The third, more troubling possibility is that Rowe suffered his concussion on one of the two notable hits (or even sometime sooner), and then Maryland (unknowingly) had a concussed quarterback take snaps at the end of the half anyway.

That last option is unacceptable – not just for the Terps, but for the Big Ten, game officials and the NCAA. Each of those parties is tasked, more than anything, with the safety of everybody in the stadium, but especially the players. If Rowe played with a concussion, they all failed miserably. It should never, ever happen.

Maryland believes its medical staff acted firmly within the scope and protocols laid out for it by the Big Ten. Rowe was checked for concussions symptoms, didn't show any and went back into the game, Semonavick said.

The Big Ten is supposed to have a concussion spotter seated in the press box at every game this season. Even if Rowe didn't play any snaps with a concussion, it would be shocking if the people trained to look out for concussions didn't think something was possibly amiss after two head/neck hits in two minutes, including one that knocked Rowe from the game. Is such a degree of caution not warranted?

Semonavick said the Big Ten's concussion spotter "at no time" notified on-field officials of any concussion concern about Rowe.

Maryland is supposed to closely monitor head injuries and never play somebody with concussion-like symptoms. Semanovick said Maryland's medical people did that. We have no reason to believe team doctors would be dishonest or deliberately play a concussed athlete.

The doctors looked for head and neck symptoms on Rowe through the rest of the half, and they didn't see anything until Rowe was evaluated at halftime, Semonavick said. He was "simultaneously" checked for neck and head issues when he voluntarily left the game after the first hit, and Maryland said nothing turned up.

Indeed, concussions symptoms don't always show up immediately. It's not Maryland's fault that this injury can be so hard to diagnose. It's not Maryland's fault that the NCAA doesn't have a uniformly enforced concussion protocol, or that the Big Ten's "enhanced" protocols leave room for very real doubt about if a player has played with a concussion, even when schools are following conference guidelines.

But here we are, and those doubts are real anyway. If Rowe's concussion happened before he came back into the game, why should it matter whose fault it is? What matters, in that case, is that it happened.

This is a college football-wide problem. Whether a player leaves a game and comes back in or keeps quiet and stays in, there must be a mechanism in place to be sure players aren't on the field with concussions. Here, no one can say that. And as long as concussion protocols don't account for the non-immediate nature of symptoms, there's a big, gaping hole that's putting student-athletes in danger. Not knowing about a concussion doesn't make playing with one any safer. Why isn't there a mechanism in place to account for the possible delay in symptoms? If there is, what happened here?

If we're falling short of head injury clarity in college football, we're fostering an unsafe environment. It is systemic. The NCAA, perhaps out of a concern that it would face liability, doesn't penalize schools or conferences that fail on concussions. It all contributes to uncertainty and non-uniformity. When we're talking about brain injuries, why do we accept such sloppiness?

Maybe Rowe, an unpaid amateur, suffered his concussion after the half was already over. Maybe he got a concussion without being touched by an Indiana defender. If neither of those is true, then a concussed Maryland quarterback took the field and played at enormous risk to his health. The chronology isn't clear, but the consequences of concussions are potentially devastating. That is clear.

The mere possibility that Maryland followed protocol and still played a concussed quarterback should terrify Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, NCAA president Mark Emmert and every coach, athletic director and medical staff on any college football sideline, anywhere – Maryland's included. Let's find a way to be better.