Consider this the NFL’s other, more literal headache. After discovering a link between repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that plagued former NFL stars such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Andre Waters, and perhaps hundreds of other players, the league and union agreed on a $765 million settlement that promised to tighten rules and screening for head trauma. For the last few years, officials have tried to impose penalties for head-to-head hits, and now have squads of analysts empowered to stop games and get players exhibiting concussion symptoms off the field. The intent is to keep players from getting hit again while concussed, which amplifies the potential brain damage.
So how did the Houston Texans put quarterback Tom Savage back on the field after this tough-but-clean hit from the 49ers’ Elvis Dumerville yesterday?
After Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a hit that kept him on the ground with his hands twitching, he was allowed to re-enter the game in the 26-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. A series later, Savage was taken to the locker room and later ruled out with a concussion.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said Savage was checked immediately after the hit, but was cleared by the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant to return to the game. After the following series, Savage was tested again and it was determined he needed to leave the game.
“[They] made the determination that he was OK,” O’Brien said. “Not me, obviously the evaluators made the determination to put him back in the game. He went back in the game and came out and they evaluated him a little bit more just because of what they saw.”
With some concussions, the symptoms emerge later — but that’s clearly not what happened here. Savage immediately displays the classic “fencing response” symptom of concussions while still on the ground, with his arms stiffly sticking out and shaking. An official stood over him to see what happened. The replay booth and the “SAFE” squad on the sidelines had ample time to review that reaction, plus authority to call a timeout. And finally, the team’s own booth personnel could have looked at that footage and seen that Savage appeared to be having a seizure.
The panel from CBS Sports wonders what happened even without looking at the footage:
Texans coach Bill O’Brien also questioned the outcome. Coaches are barred from watching replays on the sidelines (unless it’s on the stadium displays for fans), so O’Brien didn’t see it until after the game. Had he been able to see it, O’Brien told reporters earlier today, he “would have never let [him] back in the game.”
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time this season that a concussed player has gone back onto the field. The New York Times reminds readers of a few other incidents from just the past few weeks:
There was criticism when the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, did not immediately go through the concussion protocol despite a hard hit during a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 9. The N.F.L. is still reviewing the case.
The New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener was initially not checked for a concussion on Nov. 26 despite receiving a helmet-to-helmet hit violent enough that the defender was penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver. Fleener was eventually diagnosed with a concussion and left the game.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett was hit in the head on Nov. 12 and slow to get up. He was evaluated on the sideline and judged fit to play, but about a half-hour later, symptoms emerged and he was diagnosed with a concussion.
The NFL said earlier today that they would investigate what happened with Savage:
On Monday, George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs at the NFLPA, tweeted, “we are initiating a full review of the Tom Savage concussion from yesterday’s game.”
NFL public relations chief Joe Lockhart also said the league is looking into the matter.
“Together we will conduct a thorough review of the incident, focused on whether the protocol was properly followed,” he said. “But we’re also continuing looking at the protocol to look for ways to improve and strengthen it.”
The NFL needs to do something about this problem, and do so urgently. The anthem protests have been bad enough for the game, but those could be ended quickly with some rule changes. The concussion-CTE issue will persist for years and erode fan loyalty to the game as more and more retired players begin showing signs of early dementia. The league can expect that to continue for the next several years even if somehow no one ever got a concussion in an NFL game from this point forward. Not only will fans question their loyalty to the game, but parents will begin pushing their children away from football altogether in order as more examples of this damage emerge. That won’t just cut down on potential recruits, but will also create a generation of potential fans with no emotional connection to the game.
If this system can’t identify a player having what looks like a seizure after a hit and get him out of danger, then it’s a system that needs changing.