Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The NFL And NFLPA Remind Us How Meaningless The League's Brain Damage Protocols Are

The NFL and NFLPA have released a joint statement explaining why Cam Newton wasn’t removed from the game to be evaluated for symptoms of brain damage after taking multiple blows to the head in Week 1. What the statement says, essentially, is that the things that millions of people saw happen to Newton on the field that night didn’t actually happen.


Here’s the relevant bit explanation (emphasis mine):

The NFL and NFLPA have conducted reviews of the application of the Concussion Protocol in the September 8th Panthers-Broncos game and have determined the following. In the fourth quarter, Mr. Newton incurred a helmet-to-helmet hit which drew a penalty. Mr. Newton was slow to get up following that hit. The Panthers medical staff and the Unaffiliated Neuro-trauma Consultant (UNC) were positioned together on the sidelines monitoring the game and were unable to see the point of contact and decided to review the play via the sideline video replay system. In order to facilitate the video review, the team physician and UNC initiated radio contact with the Booth ATC and asked to view the video. Under the current application of the Protocol, once contact between the Booth ATC and the club’s medical team occurs, the Booth ATC’s responsibilities end (including the ability to call a medical time out). The time it took to actually receive the video following this request was prolonged due to a technology glitch. After reviewing the replay and observing Mr. Newton from the sideline, the Panthers’ medical staff and the UNC agreed that no further evaluation of Mr. Newton was necessary as they did not observe signs or symptoms of concussion.

All this statement does is prove that the NFL’s concussion protocols are completely meaningless, and only exist so that the league can assure everyone that players are being properly protected by the system whenever something that happens on the field makes spectators queasy.

The power of the protocol is based on the NFL’s ability to subjectively define two key terms: “concussion symptoms” and “big hits.” As we pointed out in September, the ATC spotters and medical personnel are empowered to remove a player from a game for a neurological evaluation if they determine that the player is showing symptoms of concussion or has suffered a “big hit” that could reasonably be thought to have caused brain injury. (Never mind that there’s good reason to think that subconcussive hits are at least as bad for football players long-term as the kind of hits Newton took.) The problem, as demonstrated in today’s statement, is that concussion symptoms and big hits are only as real as the spotters and doctors want them to be.

What we end up with is a world in which 99 percent of the people who watched Newton get his head bashed around throughout that Week 1 game were sitting on their couches and thinking, “Damn, that was a big hit. I wonder if Newton is concussed?” only to have the NFL simply say, “In fact, our people disagree. Those hits were actually small, and Newton’s brain is fine.” This is the system working as intended; by design, it cannot fail.