The NFL patted itself on the back this week, as the NFL likes to do, after it reached an agreement with the union on a new policy for enforcing the league’s concussion protocol. In an effusive press release, the league heralded the “commitment to protecting the health and safety of NFL players.” It also framed the new policy as “one of many collaborations between the NFL and NFLPA to improve player health and safety.” Which sounds really good! Until you read it.
The agreement purports to place the league and the union on equal footing with regard to alleged protocol violations. It does this by calling for a neutral arbitrator to settle any disputes, including whether any punishment—from fines to the forfeiture of draft picks, which are also new suggestions—is warranted. But despite the new inclusion of the NFLPA and an arbitrator, Roger Goodell still maintains absolute disciplinary power. And the treatment of most of the blows that result in head injuries will not be affected at all.
That this policy is ineffectual window dressing didn’t stop a number of NFL media types from treating the new policy like some kind of legitimate breakthrough:
The impetus for this new policy came last November, when Rams quarterback Case Keenum sustained an obvious head injury yet stayed in a game, thus ensuring that numerous breakdowns in the league’s existing concussion protocol would be GIFed on loop. On the play in question, Keenum smacked the back of his head against the turf, grabbed his helmet, and struggled to get to his feet; anyone watching could see he had just sustained a brain injury, or that he at least ought to be evaluated by a doctor before running another play. That the Rams’ coaches and even their medical staff failed to remove Keenum immediately is precisely why the league and the union had established a concussion protocol in the first place: An independent spotter, positioned in the press box, had the authority to stop the game to make sure Keenum was given an immediate concussion evaluation. Again, this system was already in place. Yet it wasn’t acted upon, and that failure is what this new policy is designed to prevent.
According to the press release, the next time someone is permitted to keep playing after going woozy for all the world to see, there will be consequences. But there’s zero reason to believe the hype. That the NFL would allow for a neutral arbitrator in cases such as this sounds like a welcome development, but as the league’s own press release states, the arbitrator can only “issue a report.” He or she cannot make any sort of binding decision. Goodell can overrule the arbitrator, and the union has no recourse.
Why’s that, you might be wondering?
“As jointly agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA, the Commissioner retains absolute discretion in determining penalties for violations of the concussion protocol.”
So: Despite appearances, the NFL still has all the power here. If the league and the union agree on a punishment, that punishment will be imposed. But if the league and the union disagree, the league’s ruling is final. Even the punishment schedule, with its specific references to multiple offenses, remedial education, and “aggravating circumstances,” is still just a suggestion, nothing more. No fines if Goodell doesn’t want them. No draft picks lost if Goodell doesn’t think it should happen. Roger Goodell still has “absolute discretion,” just as he did under old policy. Nothing has changed, and nothing will change without a new CBA.
Spokespersons for both the NFL and the NFLPA did not return messages seeking comment on the new policy.
And what about the non-viral hits, the ones that happen on every play that aren’t so obvious?
The NFL has contorted itself in recent years to pin the blame for concussions on the players and their failure to play the game properly. As recently as January 2015, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent was citing “the impermissible use of the helmet” and “coaches teaching a different style of technique” as reasons for a decline in the number of reported concussions. Football doesn’t cause head injuries, see. People who don’t know how to play football right way do. Yet just this week, the New York Times called bullshit on all that: An independent study, the Times discovered, found “no demonstrable effect on concussions” from the league-backed Heads Up Football youth program, despite previous claims to the contrary. Needless to say, the Times’ findings were not much promulgated by very many reporters who cover the NFL.
Besides, according to the league’s own calculations, concussions in 2015 were up 32 percent over the previous season. “Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, told anyone who would listen that concussion numbers skyrocketed because the NFL has ‘lowered the threshold’ on diagnosing concussions,” Aaron Gordon of Vice Sports wrote back in January. “Although this isn’t mutually exclusive from players tackling in a supposedly safer manner, it implies the NFL has a happy explanation for any movement on concussion statistics.”
The new protocol enforcement policy seems driven by a similar desire to avoid the elephant in the room. If it’s the aberrant, jarring, obvious blows to the head—and the failure to react properly to them—that must be dealt with, then the NFL needn’t acknowledge that the game itself causes head trauma.
The new policy focuses on those big gameday hits, but does nothing to address the possibility of teams cutting corners on the concussion protocol during the week, when no one’s watching. That’s to say nothing of players who might be loath to report symptoms behind the scenes—especially any fringe players whose health and ability to take the field might dictate whether they’ll continue to collect a paycheck. This policy is about public embarrassment, not player safety.
The original protocol was established in 2013, albeit only after the NFLPA released a study that showed 78 percent of players didn’t trust their teams’ medical staffs. At the time, the league was also still trying to beat back a (since-settled) class-action lawsuit from former players. The protocol had its hiccups that first year, but by and large it has seemed to provide a blueprint for an improved handling of head injuries: a baseline concussion evaluation, repeated checks for symptoms, plus additional neuropsychological tests. Most notably, an independent neurologist must clear the player based on these evaluations, to prevent the team from meddling. And once the player’s symptoms have returned to baseline status, he has to go through a “gradual exercise challenge” that lasts several days before he can be cleared to play.
I have spent the last two and a half years covering the Jets. In that time, they never appeared to rush a player back after a concussion—not even star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who missed two games last year with a concussion sustained in the middle of the season, right when the team’s record had slipped to 5-5. And during training camp two years ago, then-rookie first-round pick Calvin Pryor was held out of practice and progressively eased back into action—even though he claimed he never sustained a concussion. By all indications, the Jets appeared to utilize the protocol as it was intended.
But by the NFL’s own accounting, 48 percent of players around the league diagnosed with concussions through Week 14 of last season did not miss a single game—a group that included two Jets players. A team doctor for the Rams told Vice Sports’ Gordon that that’s not that unusual; players’ symptoms can improve enough by Monday or Tuesday to allow for a return by the following Sunday. But all research agrees that players rushed back too soon are at greater risk to get concussed again. Which are things the public often doesn’t see, and the protocol—while undoubtedly an improvement—cannot address. The new policy does nothing to change that.
The league wants to make a show of its newfound sensitivity to head trauma, but most brain injuries will not be affected by this new policy, and Roger Goodell still has the same unchecked power to punish—or not—that he had before. This “commitment to protecting the health and safety of NFL players” is little more than a superficial repackaging of the status quo, a public relations coup. Judging from the number of media members who have passed it along as a true victory for player safety, I’d say the new policy has succeeded on its own terms before a single game has been played.
Ex-Deadspinner Dom Cosentino is a reporter and writer. He’s on Twitter @domcosentino.