The public debate about making injuries public

semerson@macon.comSeptember 26, 2012 

ATHENS -- Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson laughs as he tells this story from high school: His teammate Caleb King, a star tailback who eventually also went to Georgia, was out for a game with a knee injury. But nobody outside the team found out.

“We dressed him out and had him warm up even though he wasn’t gonna play,” Robinson said. “That gets coaches thinking.”

Such instances in the SEC are rare, but they could be around the corner

The subject of hiding injuries might seem like inside baseball -- or inside football, as it were -- but it has drawn increased attention due to a few high-profile clashes between coaches and media. And while they’re not injuries, Georgia’s secrecy about the status of suspended players Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree is also at the core of the subject: How much does the public -- and opponents -- need to know?

The issue has become a flash point in the Pac-12, where multiple teams have announced they are not revealing any injuries, citing competitive reasons. Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin walked away from a news conference last week when he was asked about an injury. On Wednesday, UCLA head coach Jim Mora banned media and even sports information staff from practice.

Even this preseason, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen nearly walked out of a news conference when he was asked about an injury.

The views among SEC head coaches are fairly wide.

South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, who spent two years coaching in the NFL, said he didn’t think “it was a big deal either way.”

“I’m not a big guy on who’s hurt on the other team or not. And I really think most coaches don’t worry if a guy on the other team can play or can’t play,” Spurrier said.

Florida’s Will Muschamp basically echoed that view.

“That’s not gonna work on our level,” Muschamp said of an in-depth, NFL-style injury report. “I worry about Florida, I don’t really care how everybody else does it.”

But Georgia coaches do worry.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL, is in favor of having an NFL-style injury report.

“That way everybody is on the same page,” Grantham said.

Grantham said the personnel of opponents is a key part of preparation. He noted that last week, in preparing for Vanderbilt, he didn’t know whether its center would play. This week, against a Tennessee team with a reduced roster, Grantham would love to know if the Volunteers have injuries at receiver. That would let Grantham know the Vols are going to run four-wide receiver sets.

Grantham also noted that when Boise State played Michigan State four weeks ago, it only came out a few hours before kickoff that Boise State had a few players suspended. Michigan State won anyway.

Grantham has defended, on competitive grounds, Georgia’s refusal to say whether Rambo and Ogletree will play.

Head coach Mark Richt said he would go along with an injury report, although he didn’t sound like he would vote for it.

“There’s two ways to go about it -- tell them everything or tell them nothing. I’d just as soon tell them nothing,” Richt said. “I know everybody wants to know what’s going on. Especially gamblers. I’d just as soon not tell anyone what’s going on. Your opponents, or people that do that.”

The NFL has a very stringent injury policy. Each team must report an injured player, detail whether they practiced and classify them as probable, questionable, doubtful or out for the next game. Of course, that didn’t make every team conform.

“If a guy had a hangnail, sometimes he would be on it, and it’d say ‘limited participation,’ and that would be the same as a guy had an MCL,” said Georgia inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who was an NFL assistant for more than a decade. “There’s a lot of different ways people did it.”

“(Bill) Belichick was good at it,” Grantham said, smiling, in reference to the New England Patriots head coach, who is notorious for finding ways to be confusing with his injury reports.

SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said the topic of required injury reports was discussed several years ago by media relations directors, but nothing came of it. The SEC has no formal policy on publicizing injuries.

Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said a uniform injury policy is “something probably worth studying.” He would want to get perspective from coaches, compliance officials and others.

Georgia changed its injury policy before this offseason. It releases an injury report three times during the week (Monday through Wednesday), that lists every player who was out or limited in practice and details the injury. Head athletics trainer Ron Courson is the point man for injuries. The idea behind the policy, according to McGarity and Richt, is to prevent coaches from having to answer injury questions, since coaches don’t know as much as Courson on the subject.

“What we have now is an organized way, a precise way, and really it’s about as transparent as you can get,” McGarity said. “There’s no gaming going on with coaches and things of that nature. Ron is pretty open. You guys are at practice so you see who’s at practice, who’s in a green (non-contact) jersey and who is not.”

Even Mullen, so resistant to publicize injuries, said he would go along with an NFL-style system if the SEC adopted one.

“We set our injury policy because we believe that’s the best way to do things. We don’t like to discuss our injuries with other people,” Mullen said. “These aren’t professional athletes. These are young kids, and they should be treated like other students. A lot of students have rights on campus. There are a lot of privacy rules for students on campus, and we don’t feel we should discuss their medical concerns with the general public.”

At Georgia, players sign a waiver that allows the school to release their injury information to the media. If it’s a touchy medical issue, Courson decides whether to approach the player or family.

But when it comes to less sensitive injuries, like a turned ankle or an ACL, it becomes a simple competitive issue.

“It’s something where people want to know. But I don’t feel we should be obligated to report it,” Georgia sophomore receiver Chris Conley said. “We really feel that ultimately the fans want us to win games. And any advantage we can have to win games in the right way I feel like the fan base would be happy.”

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