It looked and sounded good for the league, their November 24th conference with team trainers and doctors that “reviewed proper implementation of the league’s concussion protocols.”
The meeting and subsequent outreach to the NFLPA was in the wake of a confluence of news events — the ghastly mishandling of Rams quarterback Case Keenum that allowed him to keep playing after suffering obvious brain trauma, and the upcoming release of the film Concussion that tells the story of how the NFL tried to quash Dr. Bennet Omalu and his discovery of football’s grave dangers.
But no matter how hard they try to standardize some system of real-time diagnosis and resultant action, the conflicting motivations inherent in the sport continue to expose such efforts as cosmetic and ineffective.
Amazingly, the very same team at the center of controversy put the issue on display again Sunday, when Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins was knocked out cold by an errant helmet-to-helmet hit from teammate TJ McDonald. He was removed from the game, said to have passed the protocol and reinserted, only to then receive another hit from a teammate (!), earning enough of an obvious concussion to come out.
The Rams were content to flirt with the lethal peril of second impact syndrome in this case, despite all that they had just been through with Keenum. This came almost immediately after the NFL’s very public response to show how concerned they are about making sure such things don’t happen. And still few seem to care.
And what’s more, the system treats players differently, valuing the health of some brains more than others, depending on how important they are to the cause of winning.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took what NFL.com described as “a crushing blow to the helmet” while scoring a touchdown Sunday, but didn’t even get checked by doctors until after he ran three more plays. He then headed to the locker room for what he later said was merely a bathroom break, during which he was examined coincidentally.
Coach Ron Rivera bristled at any suggestion that the team handled the situation improperly. But it’s hard to believe that an independent spotter, tasked with the responsibility of identifying dangerous blows, would fail to flag that one, or that ethical doctors could overlook the need for immediate action. It’s interesting to note that Panthers doctor Robert Heyer is the president of the NFL Physicians Society, and was part of that earlier conference call.
Earlier in the day, something even worse unfolded in Chicago, where the 49ers were playing the Bears.
Two San Francisco players had already been taken out of the game due to traumatic brain injury, but Vance McDonald and Aaron Lynch aren’t quarterbacks, for whom the rules and the choreographed circumvention of them are different.
But when Jaquiski Tartt slammed Jay Cutler on his head late in the game, the Bears did a nifty job of making sure the system was just inefficient enough. They can say they did everything by the book, but closer examination suggests otherwise.
First, Cutler has a long history of concussions dating back to his college days, which should inform any action by the team. Then, after this particularly violent impact with the ground, he exhibited what are known casually as “concussion arms,” which are medically explained as the “fencing response,” a primitive neuromotor reflex that occurs often in such injuries.
He was able to gather himself, stand up and walk away from trainers, allowing offensive coordinator Adam Gase to be his first point of contact toward the sideline. Gase ushered him to the press box phone as if nothing were wrong, while an equipment assistant took his helmet and gave him a knit cap. TV cameras showed a dazed-looking Cutler sitting on the bench and holding the phone to his ear, not saying anything. It took minutes before the protocol was actually administered — a critical period of time, enough to make a diagnostic difference.
Former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer — who retired from the game after 2010 due to multiple concussions — saw it, too. “Cutler was cross-eyed as he groped aimlessly for the football after that suplex,” he said via Twitter, “so, yeah, I’m sure he’s fine.” Hillenmeyer added the hashtag “#brokensystem.”
Indeed it is, even after one frightening case of medical negligence produced a worthless response from the NFL, and made alarmingly clear already by a series of examples from the very same day.