NFL han­dling con­cus­sions poorly

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jar­rett Bell Colum­nist

Ja­coby Bris­sett went limp, briefly ap­pear­ing al­most life­less, af­ter get­ting smacked in the head.

As the In­di­anapo­lis Colts quar­ter­back was helped to his feet Sun­day, it would have been easy to con­clude — given the NFL’s con­cus­sion pro­to­col — that he was done for the day.

Not quite.

Bris­sett was ex­am­ined, then cleared to re­turn in the fourth quar­ter — when ob­servers con­tend it was ob­vi­ous he wasn’t him­self. It wasn’t un­til af­ter the game that he was of­fi­cially placed in the con­cus­sion pro­to­col af­ter ex­hibit­ing symp­toms.

Oh my. A de­layed re­ac­tion? Sure, ex­perts will tell you that some­times the con­cus­sion symp­toms don’t sur­face un­til later. Charg­ers quar­ter­back Philip Rivers went into the pro­to­col Mon­day, a day af­ter play­ing in Jack­sonville. As for Bris­sett, I’m no ex­pert, but the re­play clearly shows the hel­met-to-hel­met blow that left him dazed.

“The player shouldn’t have even had to go through the pro­to­col to be with­held from the game,” Chris Nowin­ski, a lead­ing ac­tivist on the con­cus­sion front and co-founder of the Con­cus­sion Legacy Foun­da­tion, told USA TO­DAY Sports on Mon­day.

The case of Bris­sett, com­bined with the mock­ery that Seattle Sea­hawks star Rus­sell Wil­son made of the pro­to­col dur­ing a na­tion­ally tele­vised game last Thurs­day, il­lus­trates just how much fur­ther the NFL needs to go in man­ag­ing the con­cus­sion is­sue. These cases, cur­rently un­der re­view by the league and NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, are warn­ing signs re­flect­ing the gray area that ex­ists amid the well-in­ten­tioned pro­ce­dure. They are also set­backs.

For all the ef­forts of the NFL and union to en­cour­age and de­velop tighter guidelines, in­creased aware­ness, bet­ter treat­ment and a new cul­ture, we still get these sit­u­a­tions that make you won­der whether there’s enough walk with the talk.

Of course, the pro­to­cols are not 100% fool­proof. Yet cases such as that of Bris­sett are the rea­son they ex­ist in the first place — to bet­ter pro­tect play­ers while pay­ing at­ten­tion to the warn­ing signs.

At least there was an ex­am­i­na­tion and in­put from an in­de­pen­dent neu­rol­o­gist be­fore Bris­sett was cleared to re­turn. In 2011, then-Cleve­land Browns quar­ter­back Colt McCoy wasn’t even looked at af­ter ab­sorb­ing a vi­cious blow from Pitts­burgh Steel­ers line­backer James Har­ri­son — and like Bris­sett, McCoy’s symp­toms were ex­hib­ited in the locker room af­ter the game.

That’s why Nowin­ski’s sug­ges­tion, that play­ers should sit out longer even if they are ini­tially “cleared,” makes so much sense.

Tell that to Wil­son, Seattle’s de­ter­mined es­cape artist. The man who rou­tinely re­sem­bles Harry Hou­dini while evad­ing pass rush­ers demon­strated an­other type of eva­sive­ness af­ter tak­ing a blow to the chin from Car­di­nals line­backer Kar­los Dansby. Ap­par­ently, Wil­son didn’t suf­fer a con­cus­sion. But the op­tics were hor­ri­ble as Wil­son raced back into ac­tion, seem­ingly fail­ing to ad­here to the con­cus­sion pro­to­col be­fore be­ing cleared.

This il­lus­trates what is tricky — and what could be dan­ger­ous. Wil­son might have felt fine, es­pe­cially with all that adren­a­line flow­ing. The ref­eree, Walt An­der­son, did right in di­rect­ing him to the bench for an exam.

But Wil­son was not feel­ing that side­line med­i­cal tent, bolt­ing back onto the field af­ter one play off. That was too fast. For all of its guidelines, the NFL’s cul­ture is still built more on win­ning now, suck­ing it up and be­ing coura­geous for team­mates — not be­ing cau­tious about a health is­sue that might bur­den your fam­ily decades from now.

Play­ers don’t al­ways buy into the league’s new em­pha­sis on safety, es­pe­cially in the heat of the mo­ment. But the NFL needs to send a stronger mes­sage to show that it will not get sloppy with this. The pol­icy was strength­ened in 2016, on the heels of a de­ba­cle in­volv­ing then-Rams quar­ter­back Case Keenum, to man­date a $150,000 fine to a team for its first vi­o­la­tion of the pro­to­col, with ad­di­tional lee­way for Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell to levy the loss of draft picks if it’s proved that com­pet­i­tive is­sues fac­tored into the dis­re­gard.

These things can be dif­fi­cult to prove, which is why the league needs to con­sider manda­tory min­i­mum sit-time as a buf­fer to ac­count for postgame symp­toms. And as much as Wil­son is the clas­sic role model, the NFL can’t go easy on a star player if it’s proved that he didn’t com­ply with the pro­to­col.

The last thing the NFL and play­ers union need is to foster an im­pres­sion that treat­ment of head in­juries is re­gress­ing to the 20th cen­tury.

In the midst of so much off-field drama — flow­ing from Good­ell’s con­trac­tual im­passe, protests and the sus­pen­sion of Dal­las star Ezekiel Elliott — it has been easy to be dis­tracted.

But this is­sue — con­cus­sions and their long-term ef­fects — re­mains one that can have more im­pact than any for the play­ers and for the fu­ture of the league.


Colts quar­ter­back Ja­coby Bris­sett gri­maces af­ter he was sacked in the sec­ond half against the Steel­ers on Sun­day.

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