While much of the news coming out of the NFL’s conference championship weekend is focused on whether the New England Patriots illegally deflated footballs, there should be a much bigger question facing the NFL: did quarterback Russell Wilson play through a concussion during Seattle’s comeback win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship? And, at minimum, did trainers even administer a concussion evaluation on the quarterback?
Wilson suffered a brutal hit from Packers linebacker Clay Matthews after throwing his second interception of the game in the second quarter. The hit, which resulted in a penalty on Matthews for an illegal blindside block, snapped Wilson’s head back before he crumpled to the turf:
Almost immediately, the hit led to questions about whether Wilson had suffered a concussion, and whether he underwent an evaluation. The Packers ran just three offensive plays before punting back to Seattle, and Wilson was back on the field for the first offensive play from scrimmage after less than 90 seconds of game time had passed. The New York Times later reported that Wilson “was evaluated on the sideline for a possible concussion,” but that contradicts Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews, who said during the game that Seattle’s team doctors “talked to him for all of two seconds” following the hit.
The Seahawks did not immediately respond to questions about whether team doctors administered a concussion evaluation. Wilson said after the game that he “wasn’t hurt.”
The NFL’s concussion policy mandates that any player “suspected of suffering a concussion are assessed by their team’s medical staff,” and that assessment involves a checklist that includes checking for concussion symptoms, which according to the NFL’s policy “include loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness, confusion, amnesia and other concerning symptoms” (the policy makes it clear that these are the “more obvious” symptoms, but that the list is not comprehensive). The process also includes a baseline test that “measures memory, concentration and balance.” The entire test takes about eight to 12 minutes, according to the NFL.
What is unclear is whether those tests are actually done if the player isn’t exhibiting obvious symptoms. That was the reason the Pittsburgh Steelers gave for not performing concussion evaluations on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and tight end Heath Miller during the fourth quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game two weeks ago. A concussion expert told the Washington Post that both players returned “too quick” to have possibly undergone concussion evaluations, but team doctors said they had assessed the players and did not see concussion symptoms, so neither had to go through the league-mandated concussion protocols, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Given the short amount of time Andrews reported that the Seahawks spent with Wilson after the hit, it seems likely they drew a similar conclusion.
If that is the case, if all teams have to do to avoid performing a concussion evaluation is say that, after a brief look, a player isn’t exhibiting clear concussion symptoms, it seems far too easy to get around the NFL policy. And that is problematic, especially in the playoffs, when teams have added incentive to keep players like Wilson, Roethlisberger, and Miller on the field and players have even less incentive to stay off of it. By allowing team doctors to take a quick look before deciding that the player couldn’t possibly have suffered a concussion, the policy is giving them cover to keep from truly evaluating potentially injured players. It gives the policy, or at least appears to give the policy, a work-around that renders it essentially meaningless, and doubly so amid the high stakes playoff time brings.
Watching that hit, it seems impossible to not at least suspect that Wilson may have suffered a brain injury. He may have, or he may not have, and we’ll probably never know either way. And to an extent, it might not be possible for team doctors to examine a player after every single big hit, given that they happen so frequently. But on plays like Wilson and Roethlisberger’s, so obvious that they draw immediate notice on social media and from commentators, there’s no reason why these evaluations shouldn’t be automatic, clear and immediate symptoms or not. It shouldn’t require a player getting knocked cold on the field to ask questions about the health of his brain.