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2016 Sports, Small Newsroom winner

Disqualified After Concussions, College Football Players Recruited Back Onto the Field

Winner(s)
David Armstrong and Matthew Orr

Organization
STAT

Award
Sports, Small Newsroom

Program
2016

Entry Links
Link 1
Link 2

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Judges comments

Outstanding integration of interactive graphics and video.

About the Project

This story uncovered a dangerous loophole in the NCAA’s efforts to protect college football players from the impact of concussions. STAT produced a digitally engaging product that made use of video, interactive documents, and social media to enhance a compelling narrative that chronicled the story of a college football player with multiple concussions and his decision on whether to play again.

STAT discovered that college football players with a history of incapacitating concussions deemed so severe that a university permanently banned them from contact sports at that institution are allowed to transfer to another NCAA school that will permit them to play football.

The STAT investigation found the NCAA sets no limits on the number of concussions a player can suffer and still be eligible to play; some were disqualified after just three concussions while others with as many as 10 head injuries were still allowed to play. The NCAA also doesn’t track how often players deemed medically ineligible to play at one school because of head injuries end up transferring and playing for another program.

STAT found many examples, despite the lack of tracking and resistance by schools to provide information on injured players. STAT requested information on medical disqualifications from all 65 universities that play at the highest level of NCAA football, and encountered resistance from almost all of them. STAT was able to collect the concussion policies of the major football powers and using DocumentCloud created an easy-to-use, searchable database of those polices that was embedded in the story package.

Players disqualified by one school’s doctor from playing because of concussions are left on their own to decide if they should risk playing somewhere else. STAT reporters spent two months immersed in the decision facing former Syracuse University quarterback AJ Long. Long was disqualified after suffering his third concussion. With no restrictions on his ability to play elsewhere, college coaches started courting Long and he was faced with a dilemma. STAT was there as he met with specialists in Philadelphia, sought advice from his father and talked to teammates about what to do. In the end, he decided he wanted to play football again and committed to play at Wagner College this coming fall. It was a decision criticized by many, including his former coach.

To promote the story, STAT composed a 15-second trailer for Facebook that was viewed more than one million times. As part of the package, STAT produced a nearly five minute video accompanying the story of AJ Long’s concussions and his decision to keep playing football. It was an intimate and raw look at his situation, showing him struggling after he was cast out of the football program and following him as he sought second opinions and debated with his family about the wisdom of playing again.