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Sports
Tulsa-area high schools are meeting safety standards for football helmets, but the cost of safety can take its toll

When Stefan Duma released his first STAR Rating research evaluation in May 2011, the Virginia Tech engineering professor and his team on the school’s Blacksburg, Virginia, campus was met with immediate scorn.

The NFL jumped on the defensive, responding with a fervent campaign showcasing existing safety measures. High-profile officials from all levels of football, who saw the study as an attack on their game, tried to poke holes in the research. Hate mail rolled into Duma’s office in the university’s engineering building from all over the country.

Duma’s study introduced a new equation for measuring head impacts and their relationship to different football helmets, and with it a database rating every football helmet on the market. The aim was to inform consumers across football with a base of independent, analytical information, similar to the automobile industry’s Kelley Blue Book. The findings forced coaches, manufacturers and officials around the nation to look in the mirror and face the undeniable dangers threatening their sport.

Football and the way it approached its helmets, for the first time in nearly half a century, was forced to change.

“We pushed the whole industry to start thinking about how they could make safer helmets,” Barry Miller, the helmet lab’s director of outreach, says. “Our work generated manufacturers to design a better helmet and for the industry to raise the bar.”

Nine years later, Duma’s Virginia Tech Helmets Lab stands as the nation’s authority on high school and college football helmet research and ratings. Through its work, a safer, more sustainable era of football has spawned in the past decade. But as awareness and safety surrounding helmets have risen rapidly since that initial study in 2011, so have the financial costs associated with purchasing and maintaining them, and with it has emerged a divide among football programs across Tulsa.

In the lead-up to the 2019 high school football season, the Tulsa World spoke to coaches, trainers and administrators at nearly two dozen area schools, as well as industry professionals and experts, to gain insight into the practices, processes and challenges associated with maintaining helmets and ensuring safety within local football programs. The interviews revealed that each of the nine programs within the Tulsa Public School system as well as suburban counterparts including Jenks, Union, Owasso and Broken Arrow are meeting mandated national helmet standards and actively working to provide even better protection for their athletes.

As the issue of helmet safety has moved to the forefront nationally, area schools have risen to the challenge with an urgency to get out in front of the shifting landscape. Many have implemented educational programs to enhance knowledge among coaching staffs, trainers and administrators. Others have invested in technology, introducing a more scientific and data-driven approach to reducing head impacts on the field. Perhaps most importantly, it’s no longer just medical trainers but coaches, too, who have become authorities on things helmet related.

On the matter of helmets, football players in Tulsa are safer than they have ever been.

But as issues of the past have been remedied in recent years, others have taken their place. A helmet that would have cost $150-$200 15 years ago might now cost double or even triple that, and the costs associated with maintaining a certified varsity helmet have skyrocketed since the beginning of the decade. Helmets, in 2019, have become a substantial expense, and not every local football program is financially equipped to keep up.

Each local program surveyed by the Tulsa World is able to meet required standards, but some reach and exceed the bar more comfortably than others. When it comes to helmet maintenance, and in turn helmet safety across local football, there is a gap. The common divider among area programs is financial.

“At the end of the day those helmets are more important than anything to me because I want to protect their heads,” says Central coach Kip Shaw. “But sometimes we just don’t have that much to spend.”


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Some of the quotes Sports Columnist Guerin Emig gathered in his four-part series on the 1999 OU football team.

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Education
For better or worse, TU begins transformational makeover: 'This is evolving,' Clancy says

The University of Tulsa administration and faculty agree the semester that begins Monday will be the start of something transformational.

They disagree bitterly, though, about whether that transformation will be good or bad for the university.

The question is not academic. For 112 years, the university has been integral to Tulsa’s identity. Its endowment of more than $1.1 billion was built on the fortunes and philanthropy of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens, and its hard-won reputation has grown tremendously in recent decades.

Thus a lot depends on the success or failure of TU’s True Commitment, an academic reorganization initiative announced in April.

Simply put, True Commitment eliminates dozens of degree programs, mostly in the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, and shifts resources to high-enrollment areas such as engineering, computer science and certain business disciplines. The administration describes True Commitment as a “reimagining” and badly needed refocusing of TU’s academic programming.

But a substantial portion of the faculty and a large number of students and alumni are furious about not only the plan itself but the manner in which it was developed and presented to the university. They see it as a threat to both TU’s history and tradition and its future. The Arts and Sciences faculty voted 89-4 not to implement True Commitment, and more than 20 senior faculty members have reportedly taken early retirement.

Several opponents are even asking Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to intervene.

“I look at (the plan) and see the university transitioning from a comprehensive university to a sort of polytechnical institution,” said Brian Hosmer, H.G. Barnard professor of western American history.

TU administrators say that is a misreading of the plan’s direction and intent. President Gerry Clancy says the university remains committed to humanities as central to undergraduate education, but the reality is that professional degree programs in areas such as engineering and business have long predominated and are continuing to grow.

The university says engineering and natural sciences account for about 40% of the degrees TU confers each year, and business, law and health sciences account for another 40%.

This matters because TU, despite its substantial endowment, has been operating at a financial deficit Clancy says is unsustainable.

“I have a clear mandate from my board to generate new revenue,” he said. “That comes by way of growing our student body in areas where demand is high. That is, right now, engineering, computer sciences, cyber and health sciences.”

True Commitment opponents say that misses the point, that TU is chasing dollars instead of concentrating on fundamental education.

“If you’re a top 100 university, what do you do?” asked philosophy and religion professor Jacob Howland, one of True Commitment’s sharpest critics. “You sure as hell don’t throw away your brand.”

Hard knocks

Clancy and Provost Janet Levit painted a dire picture of TU’s long-term prospects when they announced True Commitment in April.

The university, Clancy said, was spending $10,000 more per student than it was generating in tuition revenue. He cited a study declaring that the pool of potential college students is shrinking and that the number of universities is likely to shrink, as well, and intimated the Higher Learning Commission — the top accrediting agency — was giving the university’s management the evil eye.

As a private institution, TU’s books are closed to the public. Clancy and Levit have said money is a factor in the current reorganization, but they have also said the university is financially sound.

TU’s tax returns for 2017, the most recent year available, show revenue of $313 million with expenses of $294.5 million — an $18.5 million surplus — with net assets of $1.3 billion. University officials said the surplus may be more the result of cash flow related to endowment utilization than actual operations.

In 2016, the university reported a $7 million operating loss and net assets of $1.21 billion.

The university has taken some hard knocks in the past decade or so.

According to several people with knowledge of the situation, fundraising for at least two major building projects fell significantly short, causing the university to borrow money.

Then there was the short, calamitous presidency of Geoffrey Orsak. Hired in 2012, Orsak was fired within a matter of months, resulting in the reluctant return of his retired predecessor, Steadman Upham.

And with football attendance dwindling, athletics hemorrhaged money. Meanwhile the flow of international students, critical to TU and many other American universities because they pay full fare in cash, has slowed amid increasing U.S. hostility to foreigners.

This fall, the university says it will have a record number of entering “domestic” freshmen but only about 40 from outside the U.S. Just a few years ago TU counted on five to six times that many.

By late 2015 or early 2016, alarm bells were sounding, and in late 2016 Clancy, who had already been named Upham’s successor, was hurried into the president’s suite several months ahead of schedule.

Clancy immediately set to work on a five-year strategic plan. To his surprise, he found TU hadn’t really evaluated its academic programs or management in decades. When the plan was announced in 2017, it included a warning that some programs might be cut. But no one at TU had paid much attention to such things in the past, or at least not in a very long time, and so it came as something of a shock when it became clear that Clancy and Levit intended to do just that.

Said Clancy: “We had a board that said, ‘You will implement the plan and you will update us on the plan, and Gerry you will measure your vice presidents and deans by how they implement the plan.’”

End of academic ‘utopia’

Process and substance are at the heart of the dispute.

The administration says its proposal “doubles down” on TU’s best features: personal attention, undergraduate research opportunities, critical and creative thinking.

Those opposed to True Commitment — including more than 15 national academic organizations and 7,600 people who’ve signed an online petition — argue the plan will actually dilute the “special sauce,” as it’s called in one document, by de-emphasizing liberal arts, increasing class sizes and faculty course loads, and by making the university less attractive to faculty and, ultimately, students.

“Many of us were attracted to the university by the balance of teaching, research and service,” said English professor Bob Jackson.

One faculty member said TU had become something of an academic “utopia” in which the various departments were largely left to their own devices.

“We went from a state of benign neglect to malign neglect,” said Howland.

There does seem to be a general if grudging agreement among opponents of True Commitment that the university’s academic side needed some attention. What galls them is that the administration seemed to put more faith in a Washington-based consultant than its own personnel.

“We weren’t consulted in any meaningful way,” said law professor Tamara Piety.

That wouldn’t be unusual in the business world, but academia is different. Universities grew up around teachers, not administrators, and to this day professors expect to be included in decisions about academic programs. They are, they say, the experts on teaching and curriculum.

Shared governance is insisted upon by accrediting agencies and academic associations. Even TU’s internal policies require changes in curriculum to go through the faculty senate — a provision Clancy himself asked for. Early on, Clancy also arranged for the president and vice president of the faculty senate to become non-voting members of the board of trustees.

True Commitment is touted as the product of a faculty committee — the Provost’s Program Review Committee. In virtually every statement about True Commitment, it refers to the process as “faculty-led,” which is true in that a faculty committee formulated the recommendations. According to the university, those recommendations were based on data gathered from the various academic units.

But committee members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements that other faculty members say prevented or at least hindered real discussion.

Clancy said the agreements were intended to protect committee members. Essentially, the administration did not want the members being lobbied or singled out if individual positions on the various decisions became known.

“When you look at programs that may be phased out, you need to be able to put those faculty that are doing the reviews in a position where they can have open and honest conversations,” he said. “But we have learned from that, and going forward it’s a different nondisclosure type form.”

In the meantime, the university was working with EAB, a large education consulting firm. It’s unclear what role EAB played in the reorganization or how much it was paid, but its presence in the process further inflamed opponents.

Thus, True Commitment critics say, hardly anyone knew what was in the proposal until it was presented to the university as more or less a fait accompli on April 11.

Plans not etched in stone

Publicly, the university does not acknowledge significant opposition to its plans. Some minor alterations have been made, including the deletion of “super” from the term “professional super college” used to describe a possible combining of the colleges of law, business and health sciences.

Officials say that combination is now looking more like a “consortium” that may share some administrative costs.

Similarly, they say academic departments will not be eliminated, as the plan announced in April indicated. And class sizes will not be growing, as suggested in one report generated by the review — officials said the idea is to eliminate classes of fewer than five when possible, but to also split larger classes into multiple sections.

Clancy has met individually with more than 70 faculty members over the summer. He says their concerns have influenced him.

“This is evolving,” he said. “This is not something that’s etched in hard stone no matter what.”

Some faculty are not convinced.

“I don’t think anybody is really optimistic,” said Jackson.


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