Sailing the Seas of Cheese: Protecting the Player from Himself
“Our game officials will receive concussion-awareness training and will remain alert to possible concussions during games. If an official believes a player may have suffered a concussion, he should take appropriate steps to alert the team and get medical attention for the player”
On the surface this seems like a good idea. After all, referees in boxing matches have the authority stop the match and issue a technical knockout even if the boxer is swinging away and on his feet if the ref thinks the athlete is impaired and the match needs to be halted. In other words, the NFL wants the officiating staff to now share the burden of identifying impaired/injured players on the field and intervene if they see necessary.
And for those who haven’t been following NFL news this past week, this edict is a direct response to San Diego’s guard Chris Dielman’s post-concussive seizure on the plane ride home after the teams loss to the Jets. After taking an blow in the fourth quarter, it was pretty obvious the Chargers were playing with 10 healthy men on the team and one with a concussion. Dielman was staggering around yet no one pulled him from the field.
While I don’t think the burden should fall entirely on the official’s to monitor for injuries, I think this may actually be a step in the right direction. Because at the end of the day the NFL and it’s ramped up policies to protect head injured players failed on October 23. The Chargers had a clearly concussed player but no one did anything to intervene. He finished the game when he should’ve been pulled.
I’ll get back to my opinion regarding the role of NFL officials in just a second, but first I want to reitterate that the system failed. Right now the burden to declare a player has a head injury falls in that player’s lap. If you don’t believe me, go watch that highlights from the Packers game last December against the Lions to prove why players should not be self-policing their own head injuries. Don’t even try to convince me that the guy to the left knew what the score was, where he was or what he’d had for breakfast that morning. Who knows, he probably thought he was Batman because he really did look that out to lunch. But did he he get pulled immediately considering everyone including my brother watching in Georgia knew that he didn’t look quite right? Heck no. In fact, he went on to play a down or two more before Donald Driver convinced him to come out.
For all of this talk about heightened awareness, stricter protocols, blah blah blah it appears to this country doc that the system managed to ignore both Chris Dielman and Aaron Rodgers over the course of less than one year.
Where was the intervention? Does someone have to actually have a seizure to get the NFL to realize there are gaps in the system? While the testing and protocols return to play are quite good, they aren’t worth one hill of beans if the first step is self-reporting. If you’re an elite athlete and the fate of the game rests on your shoulders, of course you’re going to try not to tell anyone you’ve just had your bell wrung.
Now let me make this perfectly clear–I don’t think the officiating staff should ever be allowed to diagnose a concussion nor should they have the authority to disqualify a player that has taken a blow to the head. At first I didn’t like this premise. Refs are a poor substitute for a trained physican or trainer. After all docs like myself (as well as atheletic trainers) are ImPACT certified, not the officials.
But the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the officials can be an effective speed bump to protect the players from themselves or coaches that are just old school enough to turn a blind eye to a concussion, wave some smelling salts, smack the player on the butt and send that same impaired athlete back into the game.
I think it would be a fairly decent stop gap measure if it is used properly, not abused and not used to TKO anyone and everyone who’s taken it on the chin. And for this to work, I strongly believe some ground rules need to be clearly outlined AND there needs to be a standarized inservice/training and education for all officiating staff to try to make this extremely subjective judgment call a little less subjective (like that’s possible with a cabal of referees.) If I were Queen of the Universe, I would like to see the following guidelines in place:
- All officiating staff must have a standardized training on identifying signs suggestive of a head injury. Simply put, they need to all be on the same page if this to be an effective policy.
- The officiating staff would not have the authority to disqualify a player that has signs or symptoms of a head injury.
- The officiating staff would need to alert the team’s medical staff (read: NOT coaches) to the need for an immediate sideline evaluation.
- Teams would not be penalized for stopping the clock to call for a medical evaluation.
- The final decision to disqualify an head-injured player or return to play would remain solely in the hands of the team’s medical staff.
- Finally, like any new policy, it needs to be evaluated. Did it make a difference? Were the right players identified or was it all about nothing? Were there too many over-calls? Or did the plan fail to identify injured athletes?
No, it’s not a perfect system. But I like the idea of bipassing the player/coach/owner who will continue to find ways to circumvent the very rules that have been put in place to reduce the sequelae of repeated head injuries and put the decision making back in the hands of the medical staff that was hired to advocate for the health of the players. If the NFL is trying to reduce the number of head injured players in harm’s way, several other sets of eyes, if used correctly, may be one more safety net to reduce future cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
The usual legal disclaimers:
* These opinions are mine, strictly mine and do not reflect the opinions of my unnamed employer.
** Caveat emptor.
*** Semper ube sub ube.
**** In God we trust, all others pay cash.
***** Never eat yellow snow.
****** Never whiz on the electric fence.