Bernstein: NFL’s New Concussion Policy Just Cosmetic

By Dan Bernstein

The NFL and its players’ union have agreed on how to penalize teams for violating the concussion protocols. The announcement sounds good and makes a nice headline. It gives them both the appearance of doing something important to protect players from brain damage.

The main problem, though, is that during the actual on-field action, when the rules are to apply, the players don’t really want the help.

A tiered system of fines and potential forfeiture of draft picks has been put in place to dissuade teams from trying to keep players on the field after suffering a head injury. As the joint statement puts it, the new rules will be invoked if there’s evidence that a “club’s medical team failed to follow the protocol due to competitive considerations.”

And it should surprise none of us that despite individual team monitors being assigned and an arbitration mechanism in place for disputes, commissioner Roger Goodell “retains absolute discretion in determining penalties.”

Good luck with all of it.

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Players are conditioned to hide brain injuries, and go to great lengths to avoid cooperating with medical staff on the sidelines. They underperform baseline tests on purpose before the season, grab their wrist or ankle instead to misdirect attention, and have even been known to argue successfully for re-insertion in a game only to have no memory whatsoever of it afterward. They do everything they can to keep anybody else from knowing what just happened.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to see every impact on every play, particularly along the line where skulls are cracking with every snap. These enormous players move with so much speed and power that seemingly mundane or mild impacts often cause bruising of the brain. There is simply no reasonable expectation that all the action and subsequent response can be supervised to this standard.

What this does, they hope, is protect the NFL from the national television embarrassment of a clearly debilitated player staggering woozily around the field. Think about the Rams’ Case Keenum last year, or when Odell Beckham knocked out Josh Norman.

This gives the league all that it really wants: rules in place to respond to public outcry after the fact. It’s classic Roger Goodell. He’ll have the chance to gauge outside opinion on whatever the week’s controversy may be, and then apply an arbitrary punishment to satisfy critics.

It’s fair to argue that if these changes might possibly save even one player from deadly second-impact syndrome, then there’s no downside. And that’s good, of course.

But see this for what it really is: yet another league move in a big-picture, long-term public relations strategy to hide the truth that football itself is fundamentally inhumane. They love to keep the focus on concussions, because that obscures the real culprit in CTE, which is the accumulation of multiple sub-concussive blows endemic to playing the game normally, as medical studies have determined.

As the NFL inoculates itself against future litigation, it can point to more stringent rules as evidence of awareness and responsibility, even if there is little practical application. Whether it’s their addictive Sunday spectacles or their cynical obfuscation of their sport’s clear and present danger, the NFL is great at playing games.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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