Any time the NFL comes under fire for its handling of concussions, the league is sure to mention its “concussion protocol” as one of the leading ways it is protecting players. In theory, the protocol is designed to identify players with potential brain injuries and remove them from the game as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the protocol has failed players and the league time and time again, as Sunday’s game between the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49’s made horrifyingly clear.
In the second-quarter of the game, Houston quarterback Tom Savage was brutally tackled in his own end-zone. After his head whipped back and smacked the turf, Savage became strangely immobile, slowly rolling onto his side with his arms bent in front of him, and began to shake uncontrollably.
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All of this happened at the feet of an official, who bent over to check on Savage. The fact that something was wrong was undeniably clear.
In any universe with an effective concussion protocol, that would have been the end of the game for Savage. However, by the next possession, Savage was back on the field.
It wasn’t until the quarterback threw three incomplete passes in a row that the Houston leadership pulled Savage and declared he had a concussion.
ESPN reports that Savage was apparently checked by a “neurotrauma consultant” in a medical tent immediately after the tackle that left him shaking on the field, but was cleared to play. He was then re-evaluated after the failed possession.
Head coach Bill O’Brien said that medical 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.”
After being pulled from the game, Savage reportedly had to be restrained from returning to the field by a team official.
As the video of Savage’s concussion went viral, some speculated the shaking was from a seizure. While that is untrue, Savage’s shaking and strange position were still an unmistakable sign of brain injury that went entirely ignored by team and league officials.
“This should never happen in football today,” Peter Cummings, a forensic neuropathologist at Boston University (and a youth football coach), told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve worked hard to improve safety and develop protocols to protect players. This instance highlights one of the major issues and weaknesses we face in sports concussions: testing.”
The NFL’s concussion protocol is supposed to be the shining example of the league’s progressive attempts to tackle brain injuries. But, if the protocol can’t even catch one of the most obvious displays of a dangerous brain injury on the field in recent history, what good is it at identifying the dozens of more subtle, but equally dangerous, concussions that happen seemingly daily in the sport?