Opinion: NFL Concussion Protocol Failing

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Copyright 2017 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


What really happens within those pop-up medical tents on the sideline when an NFL player goes inside to be checked for concussion?

With the process hidden from view like a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, we can only imagine. And right now, none of those imaginings treat the league kindly.

Judging by some recent incidents, I'm guessing the examination questions must go something like:

"OK, count to one." "Now, count to one, backward."

"Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?"

"Follow my finger. No, no, my finger. The one over here. Your left. Your other left. Now, stare blankly. Good."

"Soon as you stop drooling, you're good to go."

The league's concussion protocol needs to be in concussion protocol. It is dazed and confused and has shown itself unreliable and untrustworthy.

"A fraud," Chris Nowinski called it via tweet. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Massachusetts-based Concussion Legacy Foundation. Not a fan.

Houston quarterback Tom Savage most recently was let down by a system that professes to treat his health and his long-term ability to perform simple tasks as a top priority. Blasted by San Francisco's Elvis Dumervil on Sunday, Savage lay stunned on the ground, his arms twitching beyond his control. It was a sight that would unsettle a hardened MMA ref. Everybody in the building had to know Savage was in trouble. Everybody except the Texans' training staff.

If he were a boxer, his day would have been surely done.

But he is a professional football player, and a quarterback, to boot. Too valuable to take the TKO.

They took Savage into the tent of seclusion, did their obviously inadequate checkup and sent him back into the fray.

Had Savage not thrown his first pass with the suspect accuracy of a North Korean missile, missing his target high by relative miles, who knows how long he would have stayed in the game? His performance seemed to be the only test that mattered, and that, he failed. The Texans reeled him back in and decided upon further review that his eggs were indeed scrambled.

The NFL is investigating.

The coach is using the fog of football as his defense (actually, the medical and training staff should be more on the hook for this than the distracted head coach).

Saying he didn't see the replay of the hit, Texans coach Bill O'Brien added, "With benefit of the video, I never would have allowed the player back in the game, and I don't think (trainer) Geoff Kaplan would have let Tom back in the game."

The player, having been failed by those who are supposed to be the clearheaded ones, the ones who override his instincts to play through an injury, is doing fine, so Savage tweeted. "Even though I cannot speak to media due to the protocol, I will say this, nobody cares more about his players than OB (O'Brien)," he typed.

We have seen multiple instances this season of quarterbacks taking jarring hits, showing immediate signs of head trauma, given a quick once-over in the MASH tent and pointed back toward the field.

Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett returned to a November game after taking a hit that left him reaching for his head as he lay in the ground.

In another game last month, Seattle's Russell Wilson was struck in the chin by a helmet, popped into the examination tent, popped back out before the flap even closed and went back to the huddle after missing but one play. Only at the end of the Sea-hawks' possession did he go in for any kind of actual exam. He then continued to play.

In-game triage may not be an exact science. But if the most drunken lout in the end zone can look at the replay board and slur a diagnosis -- "I think that guy could be messed up" -- the experts should be able to get this more right.

Nowinski, the concussion expert, was more blunt.

"I would not let my worst enemy go through the 2017 NFL sideline concussion protocol," he wrote.

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December 13, 2017


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