Posted January 16, 2014

NFL could fine players for violating concussion protocol

NFL safety
When it comes to 'head health,' the NFL's real initiative appears to be the shifting of blame.

When it comes to ‘head health,’ the NFL’s real initiative appears to be the shifting of blame. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

If an airline decided to sue its passengers after they were involved in various plane crashes, or a tobacco company thought that it would be nifty to extract some sort of financial penalty from its consumers after those consumers developed cancer, it would be no less vile than what the NFL appears to now be considering. On the same day that Judge Anita Brody struck down the proposed $765 million settlement with more than 4,000 former players in the matter of the NFL’s alleged refusal to warn those players of the long-term effects of on-field head trauma, league spokesman Greg Aiello put forth the proposition that current players who violate the NFL’s concussion protocol could be subject to fines.

On Jan. 10, the NFL’s head, neck spine and committee sent a letter to all 32 teams in which it said that two players — later identified as Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari and New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis — violated the Madden Rule during the wild-card round of the playoffs. Bakhtiari returned to play after he was examined and not cleared; Allen refused to leave the sideline, though he did not return to the game.

On Jan. 14, Aiello told CBS Detroit that the only reason those two players weren’t fined for their alleged violations was that there was no fine schedule in place.

“The explanation is this has never been an issue,” Aiello said about the violations of the newly-enacted Madden Rule, which states that a player diagnosed with a concussion must leave the field until a qualified specialist determines that he is cleared to return. “Now if they run on the field without permission, is that something we could make a violation that will result in a fine? Absolutely. We’ll be talking to the union about that. They have an interest in this too, and part of our system is that we agree with the union, we work out a fine schedule prior to the season on what fine levels are going to be for certain things — for illegal hits, for all kinds of things.”

The letter to teams, authored by Drs. Hunt Batjer and Richard Ellenbogen of the committee, outlined the violations.

“On two occasions last weekend, and contrary to the advice of the team medical staffs, players who had been diagnosed with a concussion and therefore declared ineligible for play nonetheless refused to leave the sidelines as required by league concussion protocols,” the committee stated in the letter. “In one case, the player went back onto the field for one play before being removed from the game.”

Of course, the committee found no fault with the actions of the team medical staffs.

“We will continue working with the league to ensure that team doctors, coaches, trainers and other members of a team’s medical staff enforce return-to-participation protocols,” the NFL Players Association said in response. “Players naturally want to play and ultimately, the gameday medical and coaching staffs have the responsibility and obligation for player protection and care.”

That wasn’t Aiello’s take, and since he’s paid to speak on behalf of the league, we can only assume that it’s not the league’s take either. Basically, after decades of ignoring the effects of head trauma well after it knew of the dangers and employing “specialists” who operated on the borders of medical malpractice, the league has now decided that if a player is concussed, that player is on his own when it comes to personal responsibility.

“This has never been an issue of a player defying doctors’ orders and going out on the field,” Aiello said. “It’s never come up before, so we wouldn’t be able to fine a player in this instance, but obviously it’s something we’ll be looking at. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it, where the player went back on the field against orders of the doctors. As I’ve said, these other cases where a player argues about it, that’s going to happen. That’s not something they’re going to be fined for.”

So, players like Lewis, who simply argue for their re-entry, may not be fined. Guys like Bakhtiari who go back on the field — apparently in flagrant violation of the wishes of medical staffs who should be in control of the situation — would be held liable. Despite the fact that the very nature of their injuries may make them incapable of making such decisions for themselves.

It’s also quite possible that Aiello hadn’t heard of a player going back on the field against doctor’s orders before because it’s never happened before. Generally speaking, though, players have been encouraged to head back into games even when they have been clearly and obviously concussed. Two recent examples:

  • In December 2011, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was allowed back in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite the fact that Steelers linebacker James Harrison clearly poleaxed him with a helmet-to-helmet hit. McCoy walked off the field like a gunfighter just out of a barroom brawl, but the Browns didn’t even administer the standard SCAT2 concussion test before putting him back in. A later test showed “abnormal results.” The league didn’t penalize the Browns at all for their negligence, but Harrison was suspended for a game.
  • In October 2011, San Diego Chargers offensive guard Kris Dielman was allowed to keep playing against the New York Jets despite the fact that he was obviously concussed after a play in the fourth quarter. Dielman was reeling right in front of at least one official, but he stayed in the game … and suffered a grand mal seizure on the flight home after. The Chargers were not penalized in any way by the league for what would seem like a graphic and obvious abdication of responsibility.

Even in the wild-card weekend that has the league in such a tizzy, Chargers center Nick Hardwick — Dielman’s former teammate — appeared to suffer a concussion in his team’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He was diagnosed at the time with a “neck stinger,” and it wasn’t until the next Wednesday that the Chargers decided to announce that, Oh yeah, Hardwick was actually concussed at the time. Hardwick didn’t return to the game, which was one positive, but the disconnect between on-field and postgame diagnosis is precisely what the NFL would like us to believe that it has finally fixed. (It’s worth noting that during wild-card weekend Kansas City Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles also left the game with a concussion and did not return.)

The league’s watchdog committee didn’t happen to mention the Hardwick incident, and the league hasn’t found the Chargers at fault. However, it’s good to know that down the road, players like Hardwick, whose head injuries may actually prevent them from the understanding that they’re ready or not to re-enter a game, could be held financially responsible for their misdeeds.

That, it seems, is what the NFL has wanted all along — a no-fault free pass to make gobs of money on the backs of the players it claims to care about. And with the decision to possibly fine players for daring to get their bells rung and still want to do their jobs, the NFL has also proved that it has absolutely no shame in the maintenance of its status quo.

38 comments
xxman
xxman

As someone who has watched Norm VanBrocklin, Y. A. Tittle, et al, and watched every Super Bowl game, the recent increase in the level of violence in the game has ruined it for me.  The viciousness and intent to harm opposing players is, at best, disrespectful of fellow players, and, at worst, criminal.  Add to that the celebration of violent hits and take-outs, and it ceases to be a game.  For me, at least.   This type of conduct is unneeded.  What's the point?  That a player can concuss or injure a fellow player for the pure joy of doing so?  Is that what the game has become?  Head shots?  Stupid.   Hand-slapping a team-mate's helmet to show support for a play he made?  Also stupid.    What a shame.  And the owners condone it, showing even more disregard for their employees.   And then there's the increasingly longer and more frequent commercials and, now, popup ads.  Are these stoppages of play fair to the players and fans when so much rides on emotion and excitement?  Oops - take five, folks.  Reboot.  Repeat.  Ad infinitum.   What's with this new deal where my TV screen is now reduced to 1/3 its size?  I should care what some Tweeter thinks about the game, or what some "famous person" thinks during play?  What next?    Are you owners and TV moguls so greedy that you can't resist the lure of ever more ridiculous ways of padding your bank accounts?  When is enough enough?  Oh, I forgot - there obviously never is enough for some of you people.   Game officials continue to show their incompetence; even with million-pixel super-slo-motion reruns and gigantic screens, they still can't get their calls right.     C'mon, man.    Thanks for the memories......most of them, anyway.  I'm done.

JohnEpp
JohnEpp

The NFL wants to fine a player who is concussed for making the decision to go back into the game?


This is like a bouncer at the bar who has the keys to your car.  You know you are going to drink and that if you drink too much you will be arrested for drunk driving. Going in you give your keys to the bouncer, trusting that if you are drunk they will not let you drive. You have to take breathalyzer to get them, but the bouncer will tell you,"You are drunk and will be arrested if you drive", but will still give you your keys.  And the bouncer is actually a police officer.  So the minute you get into the car they arrest you for drunk driving, even though they know you are unable to make a informed choice at that point in time. 


This is ridiculous. Take the helmet, no one is going into a game without it.  Once the player has a Concussion Test, the helmet is taken and locked up.  Only the team doctor can unlock the helmet and give it back.  As for leaving the sideline, or more tests, of course its going to be difficult in some situations to get the player to comply.  They have a concussion!!!!  DUH!!!  


The NFL wants to be free and clear because of the risks to the bottom line.  But the cat is out of the bag.  These hits cause damage, sometimes long term damage.  Players are aware of this and take the risk to play a sport that we enjoy watching and makes them tons of money. But players still need to be protected especially when they can't protect themselves.  Not doing this is just Morally wrong. 

JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

Perhaps these guys made poor decisions because they were suffering the effects of concussions. It should be the team doctors and coaches that are responsible for removing the player from the field.

Joe R2
Joe R2

Rog God would fine his own mother if he had a reason to.

pirate
pirate

I don't understand the author's position. They – the league, the teams and the players – now know the dangers of concussions, and they know the rules. You can't go back into action until you've been cleared. Why is it wrong to fine players who break the rules? Why is it "vile" to hold players responsible for knowingly endangering themselves by ignoring the protocols set up for their protection? If 10 or 20 years down the line they (God forbid) developed medical conditions as a result of their actions, would they try to recover their expenses from the league program when their condition could be attributed to their actions taken in spite of a process set up to protect them? 


This is a case where perhaps Farrar might have been better off limiting himself to reporting the facts and sparing us his outrage, or at the very least, thinking through the logic (or lack thereof) of his opinion.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

Poor, poor little football players.  Didn't know constant hits on the head might be bad for you.  Can't be their own responsibility for playing.  So after enduring indentured servitude in college and fighting like mad for an NFL roster spot, they sue their employer for, in effect, making them play football.

Now, they're saying "I don't care.  Gimme the ball."

Any player who puts himself back in after being taken out should lose any legal standing for future action.  

Stereotype:  jocks, football players in particular, are dumb.  Proof that stereotypes are built on reality. 

Craig
Craig

As I understand it, the players sued the NFL because they believe that the league played down the dangers of head injuries and thereby exposed players to life-long injury-related issues beyond broken bones and such.  Okay, I'm not going to fault the players for that, and it seems that suit had merit.


Now, the league is responding to those concerns, beginning with rules relating to the testing of players for possible concussions and then restricting them until they are medical sound and clear of symptoms.  That seems like a reasonable response, both to the issues raised by the suit and also to the simple realities of the game.


Now, we have players apparently saying they don't care and won't follow the new rules if they don't want to.  I'm not a big fan of everything the league does, but in this case the players apparently need to be protected from themselves.  They filed the suit, essentially won, and now they want to ignore the very dangers that they claimed existed.  That makes no sense.  If the doctor says "he can't play" then that should be the final ruling.  I'll assume the doctor knows enough to make a good decision, and if the player is actually concusses, he probably doesn't.  If it takes a fine to follow the doctor's order, then...well, I guess that's what it takes.

WayneWaterman
WayneWaterman

If I sued my employer for over $700 million dollars I wouldn't be surprised if there were some repercussions in the future.  The hand that feeds is biting back.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

As we've seen just recently from that abominable video of a coach telling a six or seven year old player to lead with his helmet saying 'I don't care if you can't get back up', players are trained from the earliest possible time to put their health at risk 'for the team'. It's offensive in the extreme, but those are facts.  To fine players now for doing what they've been trained to do for years seems unfair to me. Even many of the comments here, from guys who may not have played much organized football, say things like 'rub a little dirt on it' or 'clear the cobwebs' without understanding the long term dangers. 

You want a real penalty for guys that go back into the game against orders? Make the team forfeit if they won the game. Fine the team a million dollars, win or lose. Double the fine each additional offense. THEN coaches would make sure it doesn't happen. All you need to do is treat it seriously. The NFL could stop it tomorrow if they wanted to take the responsibility.

MichaelJones2
MichaelJones2

Doug Farrar, do you even know how to make an analogy?  Because reading this article shows to me you don't!  You need to go back to journalism school to learn proper use of analogies.   Comparing football players to passengers of an airline or consumers of tobacco, really? 

Mike26
Mike26

Most of the article, which was informative to a degree, had a hateful overtone as I read it.  Was this supposed to be an informative article or an opinion column?  If simply informative, it needs work.  If an opinion, he did a pretty good job of using not-so-subtle language and examples to show his distrust and disapproval of the NFL's concussion policy - now and in the past.

kenc29
kenc29

Hmmm…. what if they couldn't remember they weren't supposed to go back into the game?

NickStl
NickStl

It seems odd to put the onus on a player who may not be thinking clearly because they may have just suffered a concussion.  The NFL must hold the team responsible for allowing a player to reenter the game.  Ultimately the coaches decide who takes the field.  

Chip
Chip

A few thoughts ...

The medical staff are medical staff - they're not bouncers or security guards. They can't physically stop the players themselves from doing anything.

That said, the medical staff should have the authority to immediately stop the game (via a sideline official) and remove any player who is back on the field in violation of medical protocols.

They should also be charged with the responsibility to ensure that the players do what the concussion protocol says. They should have the authority (and the duty) to get security personnel to help them take a player back to the locker room, if that is the protocol and if the security personnel are necessary.

Players are ALWAYS going to want to play. They're not going to be thinking right, especially if they just got a jolt to the brain. It's up to others to stop them.

Merv
Merv

It would appear the author would have the medical staff tie the player to a gurney, or perhaps, shoot him, to keep him out of the game.


A player needs to do what the medical staff and the coaches say.  Otherwise..........

FrankBeans
FrankBeans

Your analogies at the beginning have no merit to this situation.  What is so horrendous about this?  Players sued the NFL because of concussions.  So now the NFL must protect itself.  They implemented protocols to reduce risks.  If the players willfully violate these protocols.... why shouldn't it be a fine just like violating any other protocol?

jomolungma
jomolungma

Wow, that's a lot of anger aimed at a hypothetical with no defined structure around it.  Did Aiello say that teams won't be fined in the future for misapplying the concussion protocols?  What happens if the doctors review a player, rule him out, his helmet is taken away, and then the player surreptitiously gets his helmet back and runs in the game while nobody is looking?  Should the doctor be blamed for that?  You know who will get blamed?  The NFL, when that player ends up with memory issues and sues the league in 10 years (because we all know there will be more lawsuits).  The NFL is trying to cover massive legal exposure on the concussion issue by doing everything it can to show a future Court that... it did everything it could.  I don't blame the league for thinking about it, but I do blame the writer for reacting with vitriol to something that doesn't even exist yet.

Cartesian
Cartesian

@xxman It's not "for the pure joy," it's to make him think twice about trying to catch the ball, or run through that hole, etc. In short, it's to WIN. 

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@xxman 

Concur with your thoughts about the NFL's culture of viciousness.  

Tackle the guy, then go to the next play.  Head-hunting doesn't mean a better player--often the opposite, because those guys tend to whiff while they wind up for a big collision.

I blame the same media jerks who are now so sanctimonious about this.  Ten years ago, they were burbling joyously about "big hits."


MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@JohnEpp  

Your metaphor is dishonest.  

These players simply refused to come out.  They were dragged out of the game, kicking and literally screaming --one guy was ranting like a madman on the sidelines after he was taken out of the game for good.


JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

@MidwestGolfFan Actually, the NFL hid the evidence that repeated concussions could cause long term brain damage.  So, the players didn't know CTE could result from repeated concussions.  Worker safety laws apply to the NFL in most states.  The NFL must take reasonable steps to protect their employees or face fines and other penalties.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@Craig 

An example of why the vast majority of these guys go bust within five years of retirement:  bad judgment.

Mike26
Mike26

@Chip No, the docs should inform the HC immediately - and document the real and game times.  After that, it's on the HC as it should be.   And yes, players SHOULD be fined for violating protocol, something that should be fast-tracked by the union.


As for players refusing to leave the sidelines - again, a violation of protocol should be a fineable offense.  Doctors should NEVER be in the business of policing the players, so another report to the HC is in order - and then it will be on the HC's shoulders.


For all you that believe that the HC is too "important" or "busy" to handle these situations - too bad for the HC.  Fine the coach/organization if the HC refuses to handle the situation.  If the player doesn't respect the HC enough to follow instructions, then it's on the team.

nutz4golf
nutz4golf

@FrankBeans Exactly. 

Good comment.

Unfortunately money has become the only deterrent that commands the attention of, not only athletes, but society as a whole.  

The comments regarding the medical staff were out of hand. They are there to advise, not police the team.

Regarding the analogies used; Farrar appears to have a perspective problem.

WilliamCross
WilliamCross

They didn't sue because of concussions, they sued because they were misled about the effects of concussions. That's in the article too, and how does someone with head trauma "willfully" do anything?

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@JohnFerguson@MidwestGolfFan  

Yep, human beings require scientific evidence to know that blows to the head аre bad for you.

You and the players clearly hate "The Man," thinking The Man is always screwing you.  Yet when The Man says, "It's safe to beat your brains out," you claim to believe him?  Not buying.

Nobody is forcing these guys to play pro football. They worked like crazy to get there. People make choices, and need to live with the consequences. 

P.S. Hiding behind draconian laws that employers always find a way to skirt is the refuge of someone with no factual argument.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@WilliamCross 

Ever hear the term, "punch drunk?"  It's been around for more than a century.

Human beings have always known that repeated blows to the head are unsafe.

If someone says otherwise and you believe them, it's wishful thinking.  Plenty of guys have retired because of concussions even before this whole thing started.

MidwestGolfFan
MidwestGolfFan

@PhillyPenn@MidwestGolfFan  

Ever hear the term, "punch drunk?"  It's been around since way before the NFL.  Human beings instinctively know that repeated blows to the head are dangerous.

You are just determined to vilify one group for another group's bad choices. 

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

@MidwestGolfFan you should stop commenting until you watch League of Denial on PBS.com.  When you're done watching that, please come back and tell us how you feel.