By TJ Carpenter
Alex Smith’s multiple blows to the head Sunday against the Colts and ensuing trips to the locker room for concussion protocol raised concern amongst media and fans. “Why was he back out there?” “what’s wrong with the NFL’s concussion protocol?” “the Chiefs need to be better than this,” “what’s Andy Reid doing?”
But it also raised the voices of those who have been slowly watching “their sport” get “pussified” for years. “He’s paid millions of dollars!” “This is a man’s game!” “That’s just football.”
Here’s the problem: they’re both right. The NFL’s concussion protocol stinks, but that’s because concussion protocol EVERYWHERE stinks. The NFL does what it can, at least until it becomes inconvenient. The Chiefs did everything, “by the book,” as head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said today. The problem there is with “the book,” more than the Chiefs, but it doesn’t absolve the Chiefs, Andy Reid, or even Alex Smith.
At this point in the NFL we have two major problems: 1. the inherent violence of the sport that all players and fans must accept before they play or watch. 2. Money motivation driving that actions of everyone from the the owners, to the coaches, to the players, to the doctors, to the fans.
The first is fairly simple and straightforward. The second… You may pause and say, “wait what?” I get it. But let’s break this down. The NFL has a terrible culture when it comes to concussions. The NFL’s concussion protocol stinks because it doesn’t actually lead to a definitive answer on whether or not a player had a concussion, which the NFL acknowledges. The test given to players can also be cheated, fairly easily (more on that in a second). The trainer’s and doctor’s involved in diagnosing concussions are given strict guidelines on what procedures to go through, but this isn’t always a good thing because if a player passes the concussion test the physician has no choice but to clear him. At that point the coach, who is completely ignorant to the process the player just went through wants a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether the player has been cleared. Coach gets the answer he wants and the player goes back in. Now at this point, you may be thinking, “the coach’s decision here isn’t whether or not to send the player back in based on whether or not the player had a concussion, because as we’ve established, the physicians didn’t actually diagnose him; it's based on whether or not that player is needed to on the field to win the game.”
Scary, right? This puts a lot of pressure on the player to fake the baseline test at the beginning of the season, which many players have admitted to and in one instance with Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, outright refusing to take the test. But why would a player do that? The concussion protocol is there to protect them, right? Yes, it’s there to protect their HEALTH, but it doesn’t protect their job and it doesn’t protect their salary. And therein lies the ultimate problem. Players’ contracts aren’t guaranteed, and their job certainly isn’t. This year, it would appear as though Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has already lost his job due to injury, and Alex Smith who lost his job due to a concussion in 2012 to Colin Kaepernick, wasn’t about to see that happen to HIM, AGAIN.
So to summarize the NFL’s concussion protocol stinks, the coaches just want an affirmative answer to get the player back on the field and the player wants to get back out on the field to protect his job and his money. And that’s the real problem.
How do you solve this? By guaranteeing contracts. Take Major League Baseball for example. Teams in MLB treat players with injuries, even minor ones, with kid gloves. If a player has so much as soreness in his forearm it could result in weeks on the disabled list and delicate rehabilitation. Why? Because in baseball, players and prospects are multi-million dollar investments whose contracts are guaranteed even if the player never plays an inning of baseball again. And this incentivizes the team to protect the player. It takes the decision out of the player’s hands entirely, but it also gives the player the calm and ease of knowing he’s still going to get paid.
Money is a great motivator. It’s the ultimate motivator in most things in sports. The will to win is a strong one, and one that is almost universally shared. But so is money. And if you want to fix a broken culture, the best way to do that is to take a primary motivating component and use it properly. And if you fix the culture around concussions, perhaps the concussions themselves will at least be treated properly. We know concussions will happen. It is a byproduct of football; that cannot be changed. It is a risk that every player accepts when he goes out on the field. But the risk of that concussion being mishandled because of a broken culture? No.
If the NFL truly wishes to take concussions seriously, it will change the culture of the league, not just treat the symptoms as they become financially inconvenient to the sport.
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