The biggest story of the 2016 NASCAR season may have started on the track, but it unfolded far away – in dimly-lit and hushed rooms where Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent months recovering from a brain injury.
NASCAR has finally responded to the high-profile injury with a series of new regulations aimed at reducing injuries in racing and protecting drivers. The new regulations include standardizing the test used to assess drivers who may have brain injuries, as well as mandating that any driver who has wrecked should be evaluated for a concussion.
In the past teams within NASCAR could use any concussion assessment tool they preferred, but now they will be required to use the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 3. The changes also close the loophole exempting racers who could drive their car back to the garage after a crash from brain injury assessments.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. applauded the changes in a tweet, celebrating the progress being made:
NASCAR is just one of the many competitive sports leagues introducing new rules that claim to protect their athlete’s brains, but the question remains: how much do these changes really do and is NASCAR just playing lip service to brain injuries?
On their surface, the rules seem to tackle major loopholes potentially allowing racers to remain in the race while their brain is injured and vulnerable. But, the first race in the 2017 season revealed many loopholes are still available, and a few new ones may have sprung up.
Kurt Busch quickly became the first driver to crash in the 2017 NASCAR season, flying head-first into the wall of the track. Under the new rules, it would seem obvious that Busch should have undergone a concussion assessment. But he didn’t.
This is because the actual text of the rules allows for plenty of wiggle room in the form of “discretion.”
While NASCAR acted as if the new regulations were concrete rules, the actual regulations say concussion tests are only required if medical personnel believe the driver has sustained a head injury. In other words, any driver could potentially talk his way out of an exam.
This was especially obvious when the driver who just crashed head-on into a wall going almost 200 MPH was allowed to walk out of the medical center without a test.
As the wave of bad PR related to concussions in athletics floods into every sport with more physical contact than checkers, we are seeing more and more ineffective rule changes like these. With the gaping loopholes and questionable enforcement, the regulations seem more intended to quell fan discomfort than to actually protect athletes.
If organizations like NASCAR wish to really protect their athletes, they need to implement rules that include mechanisms to ensure the regulations are enforced and close loopholes that could put athletes at risk. Until then, any safety regulations will seem like a lot of talk with little action.