There will always be Colby Armstrongs – players who hide concussions or other injuries from club medical staff in order to keep playing or out of fear of losing their job.
But what happens when trainers and team physicians paid by professional clubs err in detecting concussions? When they let down their guard or vigilance is impaired because they're attending to other tasks? The NFL isn't taking any chances. Not any more.
Chris Mortenson of ESPN reported Wednesday morning that effective this week, an independently-certified trainer will be assigned to monitor all suspected concussion-related injuries at every NFL game.
The decision was made after the Cleveland Browns failed to test quarterback Colt McCoy for a concussion after an illegal helmet to facemask hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in a nationally-televised game on Dec. 8. The Browns president, Mike Holmgren, claimed they did not test McCoy, who went back into the game after two plays, because trainers did not see the hit and because they were attending to other injured players.
McCoy, one of 11 Browns players to have sustained concussions this season. has not been cleared to return to the practice.
The NFL, and particularly commissioner Roger Goodell, deserves credit for seizing this opportunity. Goodell sent a medical team last week to meet with the Browns and chaired a four-hour conference call that involved the team and representative of the NFL Players Association. The NFLPA may still file a grievance on McCoy's part, Mortenson reports.
This does not mean that we are seeing a move towards eliminating one of the biggest and longest-running conflicts of interest in professional sports: the role of trainers and physicians paid by the club. But maybe it is the next step.
This is not to besmirch the reputations of club trainers and doctors. Not at all. Considering the number of decisions they make during an average work day, the vast majority are above reproach.
But as the emphasis moves beyond the clubhouse or locker room and field to quality of life issues – and as players see their careers extended due to improvements in treatment, which effectively increases the number of hits or collisions or other traumas – the role of club medical personnel must out of necessity be re-evaluated, if for no other reasons than legal reasons. Because it does not matter how skilled a trainer or club doctor is or how well-intentioned he or she may be: they are paid by the team to make judgment calls on whether or not players remain on the field.
During an interview last year at a news conference in which the CFL announced a new concussion protocol, Dr. Charles Tator, a leading advocate for greater awareness in the area, was asked if he felt sports was moving toward an era where players would routinely be subjected to testing for concussions in-season, as is the case currently with drug-testing. He said too much was unknown about the efficacy of in-season base-line testing to make that statement. But as a society, we are making strides technologically, with the development of sensors on hockey helmets, for example, that will show parents and coaches if their child has absorbed a hit capable of causing a concussion. There is growing talk of a system of sensors for helmets in other sports, too, and possible real-time monitoring during games.
As Armstrong reminded us when he hid his concussion from the Maple Leafs, the people closest to the situation do not always make the right calls in pro sports. For the rest of us the decision would be a no-brainer, yet we do not fight the constant battle of the pro athlete and trainer: striking a balance between competitive reality and cold, hard economics. Moving towards a greater independence for people who are, effectively, first-responders is a necessary first step.