NFL handling concussions poorly
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.
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.