The fox that is guarding the henhouse would very much like any non-poultry experts on the farm to refrain from questioning the accuracy of the chicken count.
That’s the clear takeaway from the NFL’s surprisingly strident statement regarding the Cam Newton concussion evaluation controversy. Strongly worded with the kind of condescension that typically appears only in modern political discourse, the league wants the rest of us to know that only the league knows what is best for players who may or may not have suffered a head injury.
Here’s the final paragraph from the league’s statement, a finger wag to those of us who have the temerity to trust our lyin’ eyes: “We urge restraint among those who attempt to make medical diagnoses based upon the broadcast video alone. Evaluation for a concussion requires not only an analysis of the broadcast video but an examination performed by a medical team familiar with the player and the relevant medical history. Review of this case confirmed again the vigilance, professionalism and conservative approach that is used by our NFL team medical staffs and independent medical providers. Each of these medical professionals is committed to the best care of our NFL players and is not influenced by game situation or the player’s role on the field. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and not supported by the medical facts.”
Added NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills in an EXCLUSIVE! phone call with league employee Ian Rapoport: “This points out something important. That armchair doctors at home cannot make a concussion diagnosis on video alone. . . . I think this shows how irresponsible people can be in offering an opinion without the facts.”
They could have saved time and effort by boiling the message down to three words: “How dare you.”
Oh, we dare. And this kind of attitude from the league and Dr. Sills will serve only to embolden members of the media to be even more vigilant when it comes to giving meaning to the words that the NFL proudly wears on its sleeve.
The league cares deeply about player health and safety. Until it doesn’t.
As noted in the aftermath of the Newton situation, the league has made the choice, consciously or not, to accept media and fan criticism for allowing a player to keep playing when he possibly has a concussion over possibly more widespread criticism for removing a player from play for 10-15 minutes of real time in crunch time of a playoff game so that he can be checked in the locker room for a concussion that he doesn’t have. The league now hopes to minimize the criticism arising from not conducting a full-blown evaluation by playing the “you’re not a real doctor” card (it’s too bad they didn’t use that standard with Elliot Pellman when forming the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee in 1994) and essentially intimidating members of the media into not raising fair questions about whether a player should have been evaluated for a concussion not briefly in a collapsible sideline pup tent but more extensively in the slightly less chaotic confines of the locker room.
The revised concussion protocol (in the wake of the Tom Savage debacle) requires a locker-room “for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” Newton stumbled to the ground while walking to the sideline. The NFL can excuse it after the fact by pointing out that the Panthers were simply manipulating the rules to give backup quarterback Derek Anderson more time to get ready to enter the game (which is not much different than defensive players faking injuries to take the steam out of a no-huddle offense, but those kinds of glitches are “cheating” only when the league wants them to be). At the time the events are unfolding, however, it’s more than fair for media and fans to point out the possibility that the obvious evidence supports an examination of the player-patient far more aggressive and extensive than asking, “How many fingers?”
Seven years ago, Hall of Famer John Madden advocated a “when in doubt, leave them out” approach, via a memo that said this: “If you have any suspicion about a player being concussed, remove him from the game. Always err on the side of caution.” Although the provisions of that memo were never fully embraced by the league (#shocker), the most important word used in the memo is “suspicion.”
This isn’t about armchair doctors making an official concussion “diagnosis.” This is about human beings with functioning brains who are able to see that something isn’t right, and who are willing to say so.
The league’s deliberately aggressive reaction underscores the fact that something definitely isn’t right with the league’s approach to diagnosing concussions, and that the league’s chosen strategy at this point is to use tough talk to get media and fans to shrug in the face of obvious visual evidence and say, “What do we know?”
Here’s what I know: It won’t work.