There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the NFL’s concussion policies. From the number of high-profile players who manage avoid the concussion protocol when they are obviously injured to the lack of consequences for those who blatantly violate the rules.
But, for those who do end up placed in the protocol, it appears the injury is taken very seriously by the league.
Most athletes put into the protocol are cleared for play relatively quickly. Some get approval to return to the field immediately after being assessed for signs of brain injuries, while others may have to wait one to two weeks for symptoms to fade away. However, a small number of players get placed into the protocol for months on end, with one well-known player still waiting to get approval to play almost six months later.
Michael Oher, known for being the focus of the book and Oscar-winning movie “The Blind Side”, was referred to the league’s concussion protocol at the end of September 2016. At first, the Panthers’ left tackle seemed likely to return relatively quickly. The team was unable to determine when the injury occurred, no loss of consciousness was recorded, and the player has been seen working out with the team regularly since the injury.
Now, six months later, it is unclear how long the player may be sidelined.
“He looks great, he sounds great, but he’s still in the protocol,” said general manager Dave Gettleman on the team’s website. “He’s working out five days a week. He’s working his fanny off. He’s doing NFL workouts. He’s fully engaged in that weight room.”
Oher and team staff have remained tight-lipped about exactly what symptoms the player is experiencing. It is possible for post-concussion syndrome to have effects that can be felt for months and even years after a brain injury. It is also possible that the player may be reporting signs of CTE, the permanent neurodegenerative brain disease linked to repeated head impacts or concussions.
It is likely Oher will eventually return to the field. Other players have been stuck in the NFL concussion protocol for even longer than Michael Oher before being cleared to return to the high-risk sport. For example, former Broncos offensive lineman Sam Brenner spent the entire 2016 season in the league’s concussion protocol after suffering a concussion in the summer of 2015. The athlete wasn’t cleared to play until this January.
Talking to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Brenner explained the symptoms he struggled with during his long recovery.
“I would have these mood swings,” Brenner said. “One second I’d be happy, the next I’d be depressed. My temper was very short. I would snap at (his girlfriend) about a lot of things that would seem minor.
“It made me irritable and unstable. Doctors passed along information, saying it really wasn’t me. It was the injury.”
It took the athlete more than an entire season to be allowed back on the field, but he is unsure if he will continue playing now that he knows the risk. Reports suggest Brenner is considering retiring instead of facing another dangerous brain injury.
The NFL has a lot of work to do to protect players’ brains in the rough and tough sport, but it is heartening to see that its concussion protocol is thorough about preventing players’ from putting themselves in danger when they are most vulnerable. Rather than a formality aimed at dissuading criticism as one might expect, the league’s concussion protocol appears to be a rigorous system which puts player safety first.