Inside the Pylon has previously covered the ways in which players are literally killing themselves for our entertainment and how the NFL has gone to great lengths to cover up and to avoid discussion of the epidemic of brain injuries the sport racks up each and every weekend. David R. McCullough looks at how the NFL’s new concussion protocol is failing in plain sight.
The NFL made a big deal of their new and improved concussion protocols, saying that the addition of spotters in the pressbox – experts with access to video monitors and replays – would increase player safety. These additional eyes-in-the-sky would have the authority to remove players from games when a potential brain injury was suspected. So… how are they doing?
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Obviously, we cannot examine his eyes, but just as obviously he is clearly affected by the hit: He struggles to get off the ground; He gets to his knees unsteadily – lingering there like an injured player would: He wobbles as his teammates attempts to assist him to his feet. If this were boxing, Keenum would not have beaten the referee’s ten count – he would have been declared knocked out.
Keenum stays in the game for another two plays, right up until he fumbles on a drop back where he isn’t so much “alertly surveying the field” as he is “moving in slow motion”. Head coach Jeff Fisher clearly realized something was up, as he went to the backup in the very next series.
During Week 12, Houston Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer suffered a concussion and told head coach Bill O’Brien he was, “having trouble remembering the plays.” After the game O’Brien told reporters of Hoyer, “[H]e wasn’t functioning properly.”
Hoyer remained in the game for another fourteen plays. And yet, he did not suit up against the New York Jets in Week 13, because of post-concussion symptoms.
So… it’s not going well. At all.
The problem is – and remains – the NFL’s failure to acknowledge that it cannot do much – if anything – to prevent traumatic brain injury – not given the nature of the game as it is played today – and that all the experts and spotters and press releases aren’t going to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. For decades now the NFL has soft-pedaled the risk of brain injuries. They outright lied to players about the risk, resulting in a generation of players who are suffering dementia and depression in retirement.
Players can now become aware of the risks, but no thanks to the NFL. No, this knowledge has come at great cost through the story of Chris Borland, the tragedy of Mike Webster, the suicides of Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and others have brought the story to the attention of many. The upcoming movie, Concussion starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, will do more to make fans aware of the NFL’s shameful history in covering up their concussion problem.
But it is obvious that players cannot do this themselves. Players like Keenum or Hoyer have just suffered a brain injury ‒ of course they are unable to make the right decision to remove themselves from the game. Watch this video of Wisconsin Badgers senior safety Michael Caputo in a game against Alabama:
Caputo, while making a tackle, is kneed in the head by the ball carrier. He springs up and promptly goes to the wrong huddle. He has no idea where he is or what team he is on. Thankfully, something this obvious was spotted by everyone watching – including the referees – and he was sent to the locker room. Can we expect players in such condition to pull themselves out of the game, especially with the endless competition for valuable roster spots?
Brain injuries are going to happen in football – it is dealing with them appropriately that is essential.
Coaches are not going to do the right thing either: They are hyper-focused on winning and unless the player says, “I’m hurt,” or a doctor says, “He’s out,” they are going to send the player back out there. O’Brien knew Hoyer was having trouble remembering the play calls, but still used him because backup T.J. Yates had been on the roster less than a month and may have known less about the offensive calls than even an obviously-concussed Hoyer. Fisher stuck with Keenum because he’d benched former starter Nick Foles for the game and wanted to, as the saying goes, “stand by his man.”
These men are never going to make a decision that is best for the player because, were they to do so, they might well lose their jobs as team performance suffers; the coaches that survive in the league are whose who do what it takes to win.
Team doctors are paid team employees as well, and there’s plenty of evidence (see below) that they aren’t fit to make this decision either. First, they are mostly orthopedists, not trained neurologists. Secondly, they are at least as invested in the team winning as they are in player safety: Read this chilling account from former Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Torell Troup, who played through injury. He was encouraged to do so by coaches, and enabled to do so by team doctors.
This is why the NFL’s announcement that independent experts and concussion spotters would have the authority to enforce player safety, and remove players-at-risk from the game, was met with cautious optimism from some NFL insiders. The idea that the NFL finally was taking the issue seriously was heartening.
Until it was implemented.
Spotters have rarely used their authority to remove at-risk players from the action. Whether they’ve tried and been overruled is, of course, unclear.
What is clear to all who saw it is Keenum was hurt, and no one did anything. Twitter observers immediately questioned why he was still in the game. Amateurs watching on TV saw the problem, but the NFL’s paid, lauded, experts did not?
And of course, to the surprise of none, the issues continued past Thanksgiving. First, yesterday morning it was reported that the Rams would not be disciplined for their actions:
Rams will not be penalized for mishandling concussion protocols last week in regards to QB Case Keenum, per sources.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 29, 2015
And then late yesterday in the Steelers and Seahawks game, with the Steelers trailing by five, Ben Roethlisberger was illegally hit in the head by Michael Bennett. He was on the ground for around a minute before getting up and finishing the drive, falling short of a touchdown. However, afterwards he removed himself from the game to go into the concussion protocol. Once again, showing that winning trumps player safety even with player safety in the spotlight.
It would be far better for the NFL to just admit the obvious: They can’t do anything about the risk of traumatic brain injury – not without changing the game in and/or its equipment in some way. That after more than twenty years of lying and obfuscating, they are woefully behind on the science and don’t have any meaningful plan to diagnose, recognize, or mitigate the danger. Just stop lying to us. It’s not the crime – it’s the cover up.
Follow David on Twitter @ITP_davemc.
David R. McCullough is the Editor-in-Chief of Inside the Pylon. He also writes about the topics shaping the sport, examines the coaches and players, ruminates on football’s past, and explores the controversial issues facing the game.
The Case Keenum concussion video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.