Evaluating concussions in the National Football League

Written By: Dennis Vilimek – Staff Writing Intern (@dvilimek25)

Concussions are one of the most serious injuries that can occur in football, as they are not just limited to short-term effects. The long-term effects of concussions are still being studied, but there is countless research showing that concussions can lead to depression, loss of memory, chronic headaches, decreased motor skills, and numerous other side effects.

One of the best ways to prevent these long-term effects is to make sure that a person’s brain has recovered from the concussion before returning to normal activities. Therefore, it is of great importance for the NFL to have a protocol that assures that players who are concussed have the proper amount of time to recover before playing and possibly being hit in the head again.

Let’s face it, football is a game that will always involve hits to the head. Some hits are much more serious than others, which is why the NFL now has specialists that keep a close eye on every play. The NFL first established a gameday concussion protocol in 2009, and it has been changing ever since.

Part of the protocol is having a large medical staff present at every game, which includes team physicians, athletic trainers, medical spotters, and unaffiliated neurological consultants (UNC). The UNCs are supposed to work with the team physicians to help identify when a player has a concussion.

These neurological consultants are unaffiliated to assure that they won’t take into consideration a player’s importance to his team when making the choice to remove him or let him play. Without the UNC’s approval, a player cannot return to the game. This concept seems like it should work, but that isn’t always the case.

Something to keep in mind is the following symptoms that medical spotters and doctors look for after a hit: loss of consciousness, player is slow to get up, balance problems, blank look, disorientation, holding of head after contact.

The medical spotters have access to replay and look closely for these symptoms during the game. If the medical officials see any of these symptoms, they are supposed to order that player to be tested for a concussion on the sideline. There are two hits from recent weeks that stand out to me and proved the ineffectiveness of the NFL concussion protocol. The first hit occurred during the NFL Wild Card game between the Steelers and the Dolphins.  

Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore was clearly hit in the head very hard on this play. His head turned upon contact and proceeded to slam into the ground. The clear symptom here was that he was slow to get up, as he was on the ground for over a minute.

He got a very quick concussion test from the UNC and returned after one play, which was only about three minutes after the hit. Experts say that a concussion test takes at least eight minutes, so Moore wasn’t evaluated thoroughly.

Another hit that wasn’t taken very seriously occurred this past Sunday in the matchup between the Steelers and Chiefs. Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley was hit in the head while diving for a pass near the end zone.

He was very slow to get up and the replay showed that he had a blank, confused look on his face after the hit. His head was directly impacted by the shoulder of Steelers defensive back Sean Davis, but just like Matt Moore he returned after one play.

I cannot be sure as to why these players were allowed to return so quickly, but I won’t rule out the possibility that the UNCs can be influenced by team doctors and trainers. I know that players will always fight to get back into a game and even lie about concussion symptoms, I did the same thing throughout my many years of playing football and players at every level do so.

But in the NFL, they have too many resources and specialists available to let someone get back in a game so easily. Players don’t always think about the long-term effects of concussions when they are in the middle of a game, but multiple hits to the head before the brain recovers increases chances of long-term effects and can even lead to death in rare cases.

It is the job of the UNCs and team physicians to assure player safety in the present and in the future. The NFL concussion protocol does keep improving, but there must be a way to ensure that a proper test is given before letting a player participate again. A proper test clearly wasn’t given to the players I mentioned above, and it is not just limited to those two cases. It shocks me that teams are quick to send their players into the locker room for an X-ray, but won’t take the time to properly diagnose a concussion.


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