Millions of people watching Super Bowl XLIX cringed when New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman caught a pass late in the game near midfield and was hit in a wild collision with Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. With more awareness surrounding the dangers of concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI), many assumed that Edelman would be taken off the field and put through a battery of tests to see if he sustained a concussion.
But that didn’t happen…
In 2012, the National Football League (NFL) placed concussion spotters were placed on the sidelines and in the press box, looking out for any instances of possible traumatic brain injury. These officials are independent certified athletic trainers whose sole job is to make sure that anyone who looks to have sustained a concussion or TBI be removed from the field of play.
In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, Edelman remained on the field, and to say he seemed wobbly on his feet would be something of an understatement. According to the Boston Globe, the concussion spotters up in the press box, aware of the severe hit that Edelman had sustained, radioed down to the field multiple times to alert the Patriots’ training staff that the 5’10”, 198-pound receiver needed to be pulled from the game and examined for a possible concussion.
Because the Super Bowl was down to its last minutes with the Patriots running a fast-paced no-huddle offense, Edelman stayed on the field and continued to run plays. During the stretch drive, he actually made several key catches that gave his team an opportunity to score. After the offensive series was over and Edelman was able to return to his team’s sideline, he was put through a concussion test and passed, though many believe that his symptoms may have merely subsided because he had waited so long to be tested after the initial hit.
The NFL recognized this shortcoming in its concussion protocol, and in March created what is now being referred to as the “Julian Edelman Rule.” In the 2015 NFL season, concussion spotters will be able to stop the game themselves if they believe a player has sustained a TBI, no longer having to rely on the teams to pull the player from the action.
In the event that a game is stopped, the player in question is forced to come out of the game for at least one play and undergo concussion tests to make sure he is able to continue playing. Of course, if the tests reveal that the player has in fact sustained a TBI, he will not return to the field until he has completed the steps noted in the NFL concussion protocol. The game stoppage, referred to as a medical timeout, will not cost either team one of their timeouts, and the play clock will be turned off until the injured player leaves the field.
Now, we’re going to have to face some hard facts here with the new rule change…fans and the teams themselves are not going to like these stoppages in play. For spectators, many already feel that NFL games drag on far longer than they need to with all the replays, TV timeouts and other stoppages in play. As for the NFL teams, some that like to change their pace and keep defenses on their toes are not going to like the idea of slowing down.
But NFL officials don’t anticipate having to use the concussion medical timeout very often. “Concussions and head and neck injuries are really important and they need immediate attention, said NFL senior vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller. “Therefore that was going to predominate over any potential competitive concerns.”
The bottom line is that the league felt it had to step in and address this issue after not only the Edelman incident but others as well. In the NFC championship between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson appeared to have played through a concussion after being hit while scrambling out of the pocket.
When the stakes are high, like in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl, the teams don’t appear to be able to police themselves in terms of making sure all their guys are clear of TBI. This move by the NFL is an important one, especially in the wake of the NFL lawsuit. Hopefully, other professional sports will follow suit.
Why Hasn’t the NHL Followed the NFL’s Lead?
The National Hockey League (NHL) needs to finally address the lingering issues surrounding TBI in hockey. With the NHL in the midst of a lawsuit similar to the NFL lawsuit (alleging that the league failed to protect players from TBI), now is the time for the NHL to show that it cares about the health of its athletes.
The NHL made improvements to its TBI protocol in 2011 when it implemented a “quiet room policy,” which requires a player suspected of sustaining a TBI to be put in a setting free of distractions so tests can be performed by a team physician. These tests include motor skills evaluation (example: standing on one leg whilst touching your nose with your index finger) and answering a series of questions like: “what period is the game in?” or “do you know what player hit you?” After the test is performed, the team doctor can clear the player to return to the ice, or not allow him to return.
It’s good that the NHL decided to do something about concussions back in 2011, but it really isn’t enough. Team doctors are far from impartial and many players have the mentality of wanting to stay on the ice regardless of the long-term risks, either because they haven’t been in the NHL that long and a concussion could force them to lose their spot on the team, or because they have a checkered injury history and another concussion could threaten their career.
A recent case in point: Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford remained in a playoff game last year after taking a puck to his mask in the third period. Crawford appeared to be noticeably dazed for the last minutes of the final period. What if he had been hit in the mask again?
There is no surefire way to make sure that players don’t sustain concussions—they are going to continue to happen on the football field and on the ice rink. But the key to protecting players from further, potentially life-threatening damage is to detect and diagnose a TBI as quickly as possible.
The right move for the NHL would be to employ independent athletic trainers and use them in the same capacity as the NFL. In the wake of its own lawsuit, the NFL did a pretty good job of implementing changes that signaled a desire to protect their players. With the NHL in a similar position, facing a lawsuit of their own now is the time to step up and show players that the league is serious about protecting them from the dangers of TBI.