Illinois football allegations will raise serious medical concerns

Illinois football coach Tim Beckman was fired last week amid allegations that he encouraged players to avoid seeking medical treatment for injuries in order to stay on the field. AP Photo/Bradley Leeb/File

In a move rarely seen at this point in college football, the University of Illinois fired head football coach Tim Beckman on Friday, just one week before the start of the 2015 season.

The school’s athletic director, Mike Thomas, reviewed preliminary information from an external review, including interviews with current and former players, according to a statement. He claimed the firing resulted in part from allegations of efforts to persuade players to avoid seeking medical treatment for injuries in order to stay on the field. Other allegations reportedly involved the coach threatening to pull scholarships from players.

At a news conference, Thomas announced, “This decision was based on the health and well-being of our student-athletes.”

In a statement, Beckman refuted the allegations. “First and foremost, I firmly deny the implications in Mike’s statements that I took any action that was not in the best interests of the health, safety and well-being of my players. The health and well-being of our student-athletes is of paramount importance to me, and any statement made to the contrary is utterly false.”

Concerns about handling of players’ injuries surfaced earlier this year. Former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic claimed that Beckman made him play through shoulder and knee injuries in the prior two seasons.

The Chicago Tribune interviewed 50 current and former players of Beckman. The newspaper claims that several players had similar experiences — either the athletes were pushed to play with injuries or they didn’t report them due to the team frowning on players that did report injuries.

The school’s athletic department was already facing scrutiny prior to Beckman’s dismissal. According to the Chicago Tribune, several former women’s basketball players sued the university, claiming it has a “racially hostile” environment. A former women’s soccer player filed a lawsuit alleging that the medical staff mishandled a concussion she suffered.

Beckman insisted he would fight to defend his reputation and legal rights, indicating that he will likely take the school to court. He leaves the team having garnered a 12-25 record overall and 4-20 record in the Big Ten over his three seasons in charge.

I don’t know the specific details alleged or the veracity of any of the allegations. They do bring up a serious issue, though, that applies to all athletes.

We cannot have players discouraged from reporting injuries. It can’t happen at the professional level, the college level or the high school level. It doesn’t matter what sport the athletes play or what their ages or skill levels are. Athletes must trust the coaches, doctors and athletic trainers enough to tell them that they are hurting.

We already struggle to get athletes to admit symptoms. We’ve seen far too many instances of players denying symptoms or hiding injuries in order to stay in the game. Maybe it’s fear of letting down teammates, parents or coaches. Maybe it’s fear of losing a starting position. Whatever the issue is, athletes need to have injuries evaluated so they don’t get hurt worse.

In a team sport, there must be open communication between coaches, players and the medical staff. Everyone must be on the same page. Only by working together can athletes perform to the best of their abilities and do it as safely as possible.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.