The NFL’s Concussion Protocol Failed Cam Newton Because the Concussion Protocol Is Lip Service

The league's explanation for why Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was not evaluated for a concussion in Thursday night's game is baffling to anyone who actually watched the game.

Sep 9 2016, 3:05pm

Everyone in the world saw Cam Newton get his brain scrambled when Darian Stewart launched himself helmet-first into the Panthers QB's head in the closing seconds of a thrilling NFL season opener on Thursday. You probably had the same reaction as most people watching the game: you cringed and thought, Welp, that's a concussion.

Most of us watching, however, are not physicians and we are certainly not there to evaluate the player like an actual doctor would before coming to any definitive conclusion. Luckily, NFL teams have medical personnel, and the league also mandates that independent trainers and a neurotrauma consultant be on hand to protect players from overzealous coaches, and themselves, during just these sorts of scenarios. But somehow, while the rest of us were diagnosing Cam's concussion on Twitter last night, those medical experts came to the exact opposite conclusion.

At no point did anyone even come out and look at Newton after this hit, and there was plenty of time to do so, as officials sorted out the mechanics of the two penalties called on the play. Newton had been beat up and taken other shots to the head in the second half and on the next play following the Stewart hit, Cris Collinsworth openly wondered how effective Newton would be and "how he's doing physically and what he's able to do at this point." Newton kept the drive alive and set up what could have been a game-winning 50 yard field goal, but Graham Gano missed it on his second try after getting iced by Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, and Denver hung on to win 21-20.

It was only after the game that Newton was evaluated. He told reporters that he was "asked a couple questions" that he could not even remember at that point. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy provided this statement on the chain of events, and it's not great:

"There was communication between medical personnel on the Carolina sideline, including the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, and the two independent certified athletic trainer spotters in the booth. During stoppage in play while on-field officials were in the process of administrating penalties, the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant and team physician requested video from the spotters and reviewed the play. They concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game."

These officials were given a second look, just like the rest of us, and "concluded there were no indications of a concussion"? That is a tough sell. Maybe he didn't exhibit the fencing response, but how do you look at that GIF up there, and this one down here, and conclude everything is fine?

The totality of that scene—the clear and obvious helmet-to-helmet contact coupled with Newton's reaction—makes this explanation impossible to understand. Unless, of course, you remember last year when Rams quarterback Case Keenum could not even walk after suffering a concussion in a game and in the following week Peter King king was miraculously given access to one of those unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants for a damage control story. The unaffiliated doctor's name? Dr. Richard Ellenbogen.

That's the Dr. Richard Ellenbogen who is the chair of the NFL's head, neck, and spine committee. The same Dr. Richard Ellenbogen who Congress accused of trying to influence the awarding of a grant to study concussions after it was awarded to a physician who has been highly critical of the league.

We don't know who was on hand in Denver last night, but Dr. Richard Ellenbogen's ubiquity throughout the league's various head-related efforts is an example of how the NFL pays lip service to player safety. If he is one of the "unaffiliated" consultants, the players are not being protected.

Cam Newton was clearly hit in the head and it clearly impacted him enough that he did not immediately get up. The system was designed precisely for a night like last night and it feels like the medical personnel relied on everything but Newton's health to come to their conclusion. With 36 seconds left in a one-point game and the superstar quarterback with a megawatt smile was driving his team for the win, the only way Newton was coming off that field was on a stretcher.