New NFL season, same old broken concussion protocol

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is hit by Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Denver. CREDIT: JOE MAHONEY, AP
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is hit by Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Denver. CREDIT: JOE MAHONEY, AP

The NFL regular season is officially underway, and it didn’t even take one full game for the league’s supposedly improved concussion protocol to be exposed as nothing more than a farce.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the league MVP in 2015, was repeatedly the recipient of major helmet-to-helmet hits by the Denver Broncos.

Only one hit was called for a penalty — a particularly egregious helmet-to-helmet slug in the final drive of the game — but that penalty was offset by an intentional grounding call against Newton. That means the Broncos received zero on-field punishments for their illegal hits, which is clearly problematic.

But far more disturbing is the fact that Newton was never taken off the field to be examined for a concussion during the game. And what could be even more disturbing than that? The NFL issued a statement on Friday morning saying the official protocol had been followed.

“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,” the NFL said. “They concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game.”

If protocol was actually followed in this situation, then the protocol itself is completely broken. It does not take an expert eye to see how shaken Newton was on the play, his 17th hit of the game and fourth hit to the head.

If that doesn’t merit a call to the sidelines for at least a check-up by a doctor, then it’s hard to imagine what would.

So, where did the breakdown occur? In this case, absolutely everywhere it seems.

With increased scrutiny of the NFL’s handling of concussions and bolstered evidence regarding the long-term damage they can cause, the NFL set up a new injury review system at the end of the 2011 season. (An article on the league’s website states that the system “paid off almost immediately.”)

This new system puts independent certified athletic trainers (ATC spotters) in the stands to watch for potential head or neck injuries, and unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants (UNC) on the sidelines. All parties have access to a detailed video injury review system. If the ATC spotter or UNC sees a hit that looks dangerous or a player that looks disoriented, he or she reports their findings to the head medical trainer. Since last year, the ATC spotter can even trigger an injury timeout if needed that will not count against the team.

According to the concussion checklist on the NFL Health & Safety website, if any of these three parties notice that “a player exhibits or reports signs or symptoms of concussion on the field, without exception, he is to be removed immediately from the field of play and evaluated by the Club medical team, pursuant to the Protocols. This evaluation shall include a locker room examination utilizing the complete NFL Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool, where necessary.”

At the very least, it seems Newton should have been taken to the sidelines after the hit on the final drive and given an initial focused neurological examination.

But, of course, this was potentially the game-winning drive of the opening game of the NFL season. (The Panthers’ kicker ended up missing a 50-yard field goal that would have given Carolina the win.) And, in the NFL, winning still comes first. The game of football comes before the reality of life. Business wins over health, in the short term at least.

And so, the reluctance to interfere, especially in make-or-break moments of the game, continues to hamper the entire process.

“Key players in crunch time rarely ever get removed for an evaluation, probably because the ATC spotter doesn’t want to be blamed for creating a competitive disadvantage if, for example, Cam Newton had been unavailable to the Panthers for the final drive if, as it turns out, Newton didn’t have a concussion,” Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk explains.

Of course, officials are not blameless in all of this either — as many players, fans, and journalists pointed out after the game, umpires still haven’t figured out how to properly officiate Newton. Because of his size, speed, and athletic ability, it is believed that he is often not given the same protection by officials as other quarterbacks. It’s reasonable to think that if they had properly flagged Broncos players for earlier head-to-head hits, the final one wouldn’t have happened.

But this issue is much bigger than just one player, and after yet another high-profile failure, it’s time for someone in charge to take action.

A joint agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association announced during the offseason allows for both the league and the union to launch an official investigation if it believes that concussion protocols were not followed. Teams can even lose draft picks now if those investigations turn up violations.

These are all good deterrents in theory, but they’re useless if they aren’t executed.

The NFL simply shouldn’t be allowed to hide from this problem anymore. Former players are dying — as early as age 27 — due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated hits to the head and concussions. Talented players are retiring earlier than ever due to health concerns. Participation in youth football is declining rapidly. And game after game, players are putting their future on the line for the sake of untenable careers, while billionaires rake in the cash.

Whether the NFL wants to admit it or not, the current concussion protocols are a joke. The consequences, however, are no laughing matter.