Two Teammates’ Concussions Expose An Issue With The NFL’s Policy

Quarterbacks playing through concussions is becoming a worrisome trend.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lived out both sides of the NFL’s ongoing fight to protect players from head injuries on Sunday afternoon. The league wants its players to actively seek medical attention for head injuries (and for its designated concussion spotters and independent sideline neurotrauma consultants to actively sniff out potential ones) all while some of its concussed athletes continuously compete at their own risk. 

For the third straight week, an NFL quarterback stayed in the game after suffering what would later be diagnosed as a concussion. This week, it was Steelers franchise quarterback Roethlisberger, who played nine more snaps after Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett collided with him late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ eventual 39-30 loss to the Seahawks. 

Roethlisberger fell to a hit-first heap and was gingerly helped up by teammates, but no trainer visited him on the field and no action was taken by the NFL's concussion spotter. Watching live, Roethlisberger seemed fine. But the close-up, slowed-down video replay of the hit makes clear the violent and potentially dangerous nature of the hit. However, since he didn't clearly display any of the "potential concussion signs" needed to stop play for medical attention, Roethlisberger was able to lead the Steelers' 14-play drive to a field goal. Viewers at home could see something was wrong, but those on the field with the power to take him out couldn't. 

Like a referee lacking real-time replay to confidently and accurately make a bang-bang call, those responsible for Roethlisberger's health -- his coaches, doctors and the spotter -- didn't act in the moment. It was only after the completed drive that Roethlisberger self-reported a headache and the Steelers placed him in the NFL's concussion protocol

Roethlisberger joins a growing list of NFL quarterbacks who've suffered concussions this season, and he should be commended for owning up to his symptoms and going against football's culture of "playing through pain" -- a prideful idea that's recently been scrutinized as the dangers of football-related head injuries become more pronounced. But it's disconcerting to know that even with all of the personnel, tests and protocols the NFL has available to handle potential head injuries, Roethlisberger's concussion still would've gone undetected otherwise. 

Roethlisberger doesn't need to worry about the consequences of taking himself out of the game. He's a franchise quarterback who will earn $35 million in 2015. His first-string status is guaranteed. But during the same game, second-year Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier showed that the same can't be said for players without as much job security and economic stability. 

As Peter King reports, an NFL spotter observed a "woozy" Shazier after a second-quarter play. An unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant on the sideline watched a replay of Shazier's incident, seeing helmet-to-helmet contact and Shazier's head slam against the surface. Once a sideline exam was ordered, Shazier kept insisting he was fine, but Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wisely intervened, telling him, “You will listen to these doctors, and you’ll do it now.” Shazier will go through the NFL's concussion protocol this week.  

Shazier's incident, however, raises questions about Roethlisberger's. Because Shazier was observably woozy and Roethlisberger was seemingly OK after their respective concussive plays, instant replay was only used in Shazier's case to help spur evaluation, while no immediate action was taken with Roethlisberger.

These inconsistencies in the process leading to a concussion diagnosis feel like loopholes in the NFL's existing policy. Shouldn't concussion spotters (or another official) watch television replays as they happen, in addition to the on-field action? CBS' replay of the hit could've quickly informed doctors to remove Roethlisberger -- they were a catalyst in keeping Shazier safe -- instead of just providing further evidence of a concussion. 

This near-failure with Roethlisberger comes just days after an NFL conference call was held with the head trainers of all 32 teams to review concussion protocols, which came in response to St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum, who played through a concussion and waved off trainers with an "I'm fine" after he clearly appeared unfit to continue. No disciplinary action was taken on the Rams' staff or against the league's spotter -- a decision that "befuddled" the NFL Players' Association. Moving forward, however, the NFL announced last Wednesday that there will be "consideration of discipline for future violations of the protocols."

Roethlisberger's symptoms have reportedly subsided, so there's a chance he'll play next week against the Colts. But even when he suits up and inevitably gets hit, there's no guarantee the NFL and its concussion crew can save him from the game we love. 



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