College Football's Head Games: Shane Morris and the End of the Tough-Guy Era

To secure its future, the sport must change its present mindset – by looking to its past

Shane Morris is helped off the field by Ben Braden during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers Credit: Leon Halip/Getty

The good news is that we've already made progress, because only the basest of Internet-trolling Neanderthals would have watched Michigan quarterback Shane Morris, during a loss to Minnesota last Saturday, take a shot to the head that left him dazed and wobbling and decried the subsequent reaction as an exemplar of the wussification of football.

He shouldn't have stayed in the game. All of us reasonable humans can agree on this, and all of us reasonable humans can agree that concussions and head trauma are perhaps the biggest crisis facing football since its inception, and all of us reasonable humans agree that someone on the Michigan sideline should have noticed and had Morris pulled from the game immediately, rather than allowing him to complete one more play.

This was an unacceptable screw-up, one that Michigan has acknowledged, in somewhat bumbling fashion, in the days since. But it is not my intention to pile on Michigan in its time of crisis, because: A) I've already done that, and B) This isn't really about Michigan.

Even if the inherent vulnerability of the Wolverines' current head coach and athletic director helped call further attention to the situation, this is about something far bigger than the job security of two men – coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon – who seem likely to become ignominious footnotes by the end of this season. This is what respected ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit seemed to miss when he tweeted that while head injuries are "VERY serious," the reaction to the Morris situation was "over the top." Because Kirk, it's the VERY serious part that matters here: At heart, the Morris situation is really about the future of college football as we know it, and, on a philosophical level, this is about whether college football has a future, or whether it can evolve into something less overtly brutal without losing its soul.

But before we discuss the way forward, perhaps you'll allow me to harken back to the beginning.

I'm thinking, specifically, of a man named Walter Camp. Back in the 19th century, while coaching at Yale, Walter Camp became known as the father of American football. He wrote several books that are widely acknowledged as the founding documents of the sport, and in one of these texts, he wrote this: "The great lesson which the game of football teaches is that brains will triumph over mere strength always and everywhere in this world. It is the head that wins in football, not the muscles."        

I ask myself sometimes why I advocate for football in this time of uncertainty, and this is the reason: It is, to me, the sport that most rewards unconventional and innovative thought, especially at the college level, where offenses at schools like Oregon and Auburn and Texas A&M and Baylor have bent and stretched and contorted in ways we never imagined they could. And the problem is that the violence often winds up overshadowing the intellectualism. The problem is that something like the Shane Morris situation blows up, and at a moment when the sport itself is under heavy scrutiny, every stereotype about football and football players and the base instincts of old-school college football coaches gets reinforced.

As with every other problem inherent to the sport at this point, some of this is the NCAA's fault: The fact that a governing body that was essentially created to protect athletes has not established a uniform concussion protocol for its universities would be mind-boggling, if not for the fact that the NCAA's ineptitude has long advanced beyond the mind-boggling stage. But the larger issue here is one of culture, a deeply ingrained way of thinking that carried football through the 20th century, a culture that glorified deprivation and burnished an unsustainable code of toughness. Even if the Michigan coaches are telling the truth, and they weren't aware of Shane Morris's head injury, I imagine they had those 20th-century ideals in their head: After all, earlier in the game, Morris had hurt his leg, and by the time he got concussed, he could barely move. And they're not the only coaches to think this wayalmost all of them do.

"They have football so big people can slam into big people," a football coach once told me. "And if they do it well, they get to run over little people."

I think most coaches connect on a visceral level with football's physicality; I think because of the constant demands of their jobs, because they are constantly pushing their players to their limits, they exist largely within a bubble. And so I'm not sure if they fully recognize the scope of the crisis unfolding around them. Many of them were brought up by mentors who subscribed to the old-school, tough guy, play-at-all-costs way of thinking. But at some level, they have to change, in order to balance out the sport. Hell, we all have to change, because either football changes or it dies.

This upcoming Saturday is one of the best weekends of the college football season to date. If you've given up on watching the sport, that's fine; but I haven't, and I don't imagine I will anytime soon. I still think Walter Camp was on to something, and I still think there's a way for football's intellectual heart to show through. But for that to happen, the old way of thinking has to be abolished. For that to happen, we have to start using our heads, rather than just bashing them together.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb