NFL could fine players for violating concussion protocol

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When it comes to 'head health,' the NFL's real initiative appears to be the shifting of blame. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

When it comes to 'head health,' the NFL's real initiative appears to be the shifting of blame.

If an airline decided to sue its passengers after they were involved in various plane crashes, or a tobacco company thought that it would be nifty to extract some sort of financial penalty from its consumers after those consumers developed cancer, it would be no less vile than what the NFL appears to now be considering. On the same day that Judge Anita Brody struck down the proposed $765 million settlement with more than 4,000 former players in the matter of the NFL's alleged refusal to warn those players of the long-term effects of on-field head trauma, league spokesman Greg Aiello put forth the proposition that current players who violate the NFL's concussion protocol could be subject to fines.

On Jan. 10, the NFL's head, neck spine and committee sent a letter to all 32 teams in which it said that two players -- later identified as Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari and New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis -- violated the Madden Rule during the wild-card round of the playoffs. Bakhtiari returned to play after he was examined and not cleared; Allen refused to leave the sideline, though he did not return to the game.

On Jan. 14, Aiello told CBS Detroit that the only reason those two players weren't fined for their alleged violations was that there was no fine schedule in place.

“The explanation is this has never been an issue,” Aiello said about the violations of the newly-enacted Madden Rule, which states that a player diagnosed with a concussion must leave the field until a qualified specialist determines that he is cleared to return. “Now if they run on the field without permission, is that something we could make a violation that will result in a fine? Absolutely. We’ll be talking to the union about that. They have an interest in this too, and part of our system is that we agree with the union, we work out a fine schedule prior to the season on what fine levels are going to be for certain things -- for illegal hits, for all kinds of things."

The letter to teams, authored by Drs. Hunt Batjer and Richard Ellenbogen of the committee, outlined the violations.

"On two occasions last weekend, and contrary to the advice of the team medical staffs, players who had been diagnosed with a concussion and therefore declared ineligible for play nonetheless refused to leave the sidelines as required by league concussion protocols," the committee stated in the letter. "In one case, the player went back onto the field for one play before being removed from the game."

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Of course, the committee found no fault with the actions of the team medical staffs.

"We will continue working with the league to ensure that team doctors, coaches, trainers and other members of a team's medical staff enforce return-to-participation protocols," the NFL Players Association said in response. "Players naturally want to play and ultimately, the gameday medical and coaching staffs have the responsibility and obligation for player protection and care."

That wasn't Aiello's take, and since he's paid to speak on behalf of the league, we can only assume that it's not the league's take either. Basically, after decades of ignoring the effects of head trauma well after it knew of the dangers and employing "specialists" who operated on the borders of medical malpractice, the league has now decided that if a player is concussed, that player is on his own when it comes to personal responsibility.

“This has never been an issue of a player defying doctors’ orders and going out on the field,” Aiello said. “It’s never come up before, so we wouldn’t be able to fine a player in this instance, but obviously it’s something we’ll be looking at. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it, where the player went back on the field against orders of the doctors. As I’ve said, these other cases where a player argues about it, that’s going to happen. That’s not something they’re going to be fined for.”

So, players like Lewis, who simply argue for their re-entry, may not be fined. Guys like Bakhtiari who go back on the field -- apparently in flagrant violation of the wishes of medical staffs who should be in control of the situation -- would be held liable. Despite the fact that the very nature of their injuries may make them incapable of making such decisions for themselves.

It's also quite possible that Aiello hadn't heard of a player going back on the field against doctor's orders before because it's never happened before. Generally speaking, though, players have been encouraged to head back into games even when they have been clearly and obviously concussed. Two recent examples:

  • In December 2011, Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoywas allowed back in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite the fact that Steelers linebacker James Harrison clearly poleaxed him with a helmet-to-helmet hit. McCoy walked off the field like a gunfighter just out of a barroom brawl, but the Browns didn't even administer the standard SCAT2 concussion test before putting him back in. A later test showed "abnormal results." The league didn't penalize the Browns at all for their negligence, but Harrison was suspended for a game.
  • In October 2011, San Diego Chargers offensive guard Kris Dielman was allowed to keep playing against the New York Jets despite the fact that he was obviously concussed after a play in the fourth quarter. Dielman was reeling right in front of at least one official, but he stayed in the game ... and suffered a grand mal seizure on the flight home after. The Chargers were not penalized in any way by the league for what would seem like a graphic and obvious abdication of responsibility.

Even in the wild-card weekend that has the league in such a tizzy, Chargers center Nick Hardwick -- Dielman's former teammate -- appeared to suffer a concussion in his team's win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He was diagnosed at the time with a "neck stinger," and it wasn't until the next Wednesday that the Chargers decided to announce that, Oh yeah, Hardwick was actually concussed at the time. Hardwick didn't return to the game, which was one positive, but the disconnect between on-field and postgame diagnosis is precisely what the NFL would like us to believe that it has finally fixed. (It's worth noting that during wild-card weekend Kansas City Chiefs star running back Jamaal Charles also left the game with a concussion and did not return.)

The league's watchdog committee didn't happen to mention the Hardwick incident, and the league hasn't found the Chargers at fault. However, it's good to know that down the road, players like Hardwick, whose head injuries may actually prevent them from the understanding that they're ready or not to re-enter a game, could be held financially responsible for their misdeeds.