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The NFL Creates a Red Zone-Style Operation for Concussions

The league announced new protocols, which are a welcome change. But how weren't they doing all this stuff already?

Dave Lozo

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL — a league that still can’t identify a catch when it sees one—implemented new concussion protocol rules Sunday that reflect “the most up-to-date medical consensus on the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of concussions,” according to an NFL.com story that attributed this news to ESPN instead of releasing the information first, for some journalistic reason that escapes me.

The changes come in the wake of the Seahawks' paltry $100,000 fine after quarterback Russell Wilson skipped concussion testing in Week 10 and Texans quarterback Tom Savage having an apparent seizure and being allowed to return to the game in Week 14. It is in the best interest of a billion-dollar full-contact sports league to take concussion matters seriously both for the purposes of its bottom line and, you know, the well being of humans playing the sport without guaranteed contracts.

So what are these updates? Some make sense but some of what makes sense makes so much sense you have to wonder why it took Savage returning to a game after flopping and twitching in his own end zone for it to happen.

Let’s look at the changes that were developed with the NFLPA and see what the NFL is doing to make the game safer for its players (and minimizing liability in future lawsuits).

THE CHANGE: A central unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant (UNC) will be stationed in the NFL's command center to assist in oversight of each game via broadcasts.

The NFL is a $13 billion—that's billion with a "B"—a year business. They have get-away-with-murder money, yet their solution is to lock one doctor in a room with up to 10 games happening at once? So the doctor is like the NFL Network’s Scott Hanson only instead of tracking red zone plays he or she needs to have their eye on every hit that occurs for 10 hours on Sunday? That’s an impossible task that not even John Wick could accomplish.

I don’t know what it costs to pay this consultant for one day’s work but I’m positive the NFL could afford to employ a doctor to be in a video room at every game alongside the spotters that seem to be either powerless or useless. But when you have to pay Roger Goodell north of $30 million per year to fuck up the league worse than he did the year before, maybe money is scarce.

Consider what the NHL’s Player Safety Department does for potential suspensions—if something happens during a game that may be worthy of punishment, an employee will flag the hit, clip the video and send it along to higher-ups that will review it for discipline. The system works because it doesn’t take a medical expert to identify hits that possibly warrant suspension; it takes a specially trained eye to spot concussion systems on a TV, never mind eight, nine or 10 at once.

At the end of the 2011 season, the NFL added independent certified athletic trainers at every game “to serve as another set of eyes, watching for potential injuries.” If these people don’t have the same training as UNCs or are incapable of seeing someone in Savage’s level of distress as warranting deeper evaluation, these spotters need to be replaced by UNCs.

THE CHANGE: Impact seizure and fencing responses are each independent signs of loss of consciousness and represent "no go" criteria under the current protocol. Players who display either of these signs at any time shall be removed from play and may not return to the game.

This is good. If a player has a seizure and fencing responses (that’s when the arms are flexed and held out in an unnatural position for several seconds after impact), he should not be allowed back on the field that day. It’s hard to find any fault with this decision.

It’s easy to find fault, however, in players losing consciousness and being allowed back into a game before this, because holy shit, man! If you get rocked in your skull with such force that you are rendered unconscious, who are these monsters putting you back into games? You needed to see Savage on the ground to decide this was necessary? I understand players wanting to put their bodies on the line with injuries but if a 240-pound man turns your lights out the next time you stand up should be following an exam on a medical table in a locker room or hospital.

THE CHANGE: A player who stumbles and/or falls to the ground when trying to stand, unrelated to an orthopedic injury, should be sent directly to the locker room to undergo the standard locker room exam. If he passes all phases of this exam and is cleared by the UNC and the team MD in charge of concussion care then the player could return to the game.

Again, that’s great, but again, what the fuck, NFL? So before Sunday, if a dude lost consciousness or got hit in the head so hard that he stumbled off the field like someone leaving a bar on their 21st birthday, that wasn’t the procedure?

This is why the person watching in the NFL command center needs to be on site, because in the time it takes to relay the information from New York to the stadium, that stumbling player that coaches always conveniently fail to see stumbling could be allowed back into a game. If the UNC is in the building, the chances of that player slipping through the cracks are diminished severely.

THE CHANGE: Officials, teammates, and coaching staffs are instructed to take an injured player directly to a member of the medical team for a concussion assessment.

Where were they taking them before this? To a cheerleader? The beer guy? Did the NFL have any concussion protocols in place before this weekend?

THE CHANGE: All players who undergo any concussion evaluation on game day shall have a follow-up evaluation conducted the following day by a member of the medical staff, even if it’s an off-day.

I hate to be a broken record, but was this not happening uniformly before Sunday? Were dudes diagnosed with a concussion on Sundays not getting checked again the next day? “Eh, it’s Doug’s day off, let’s not bother seeing how his brain injury is progressing until Tuesday.” This new protocol confirms my belief that every team doctor in the NFL was James Woods’s character in Any Given Sunday.

THE CHANGE: A third UNC will be on site for the playoffs and the Super Bowl, in addition to the two already assigned to each regular-season game.

The NFL can afford to hire a third doctor for the playoffs because, as any doctor will tell you, concussions in the regular season aren’t as bad as concussions during the playoffs. That’s just medical science talking.

These changes are a step in the right direction but they’re barely encouraging. If the spotters in the buildings aren’t doing their jobs, one person in a room in New York is hardly enough to offset the problems, which only stop being problems when more concussions are being identified by trained professionals when they happen.