Now we know that someone in the NFL or with the Panthers saw the multiple brain-rattling blows to Cam Newton’s head and thought hey, maybe he’s concussed, we should check on him. We do not know when they thought this, but we know they made sure to wait until the game was over to do anything about it.
Newton got pummeled—targeted—by the Broncos. I saw at least three helmet-to-helmet shots there in the second half (a half in which Newton was a markedly less effective quarterback). The final one, with Shaquil Barrett hanging on low and Darian Stewart going high, looked like an ECW tag-team finisher, and it was clear to everyone watching at home that it was a headshot.
Clear to everyone but the independent athletic trainers—now entering their fifth season—and the independent neurologists—their fourth season—who serve as concussion spotters and are empowered (obligated!) to call for a medical timeout or remove from the game players in distress. To repeat, people whose only job is to spot potential brain trauma watched all this and let it go:
Newton revealed that he went through the concussion protocol after the game, being “asked a couple of questions,” though he admitted he didn’t remember what they were.
By the most generous reading, the NFL’s player-safety mechanisms failed. They failed after being ostensibly upgraded and widely touted just this summer. They are a last resort, and the first line of defense failed too: If the officials had penalized the Broncos on their earlier helmet-to-helmet hits, Denver probably would have stopped headhunting.
By the most cynical reading, it is very bad for business to remove a superstar MVP quarterback from a potential game-winning drive in the highly anticipated, nationally televised Super Bowl rematch to kick off the NFL season.
By the most realistic reading, humans make mistakes, and the NFL has weighed the risk-benefit analysis of installing the infrastructure for a true, toothed concussion program and decided that occasionally letting things like this through the cracks is a fair price to pay when the alternative is overzealous caution to the point of losing viewership.
You could argue—I would—that this is shortsighted, that the decline of youth football and the rise in insurance premiums and the general ickiness felt by some amount of fans who like football but not quite enough to watch it knowing what we do about the greed of the league and the potential health effects on its players, that all of this is going to seriously impact the sport’s long-term popularity to a degree far outweighing the immediate value of finding out if Cam Newton could lead the Panthers into field goal range.
Last night I tried to explain to someone who isn’t a big football fan why the hits on Newton were beyond the pale. (This is often a helpful exercise to recognize some of the NFL’s general awfulness that we’ve become inured to by familiarity.) She countered with permutations of Don’t you like football for the physicality? Well, yes. What was so different about this? Isn’t this the logical extension of that? I sputtered something about being more offended by the NFL’s lip service to player safety than by its disregard—either own your shit or clean it up—but I don’t think that’s quite true. It’s hard to qualify in words, and therefore just as hard to put into an NFL rulebook, but there’s a certain level of human violence I’m willing to accept from my sports. I don’t know how I define that line, but I know when I feel it’s been crossed, and I felt that last night, as the hits to Newton spoiled what was a pretty damn good football game. And I’m fearful that the actual boundary violation for me is not the injuries themselves, but when the game makes them too blatant for me to ignore.