Last Thursday evening we witnessed another violent hit from Steelers' linebacker James Harrison, this one levied on Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy. This play was followed by some debatable sideline procedures by the Browns' medical and coaching staff. Underlying McCoy's specific situation, however, lurk more global issues. Let's examine:
Independent Sideline Neurologists
After facing intense scrutiny from Congress in 2009 -- and being compared to (gasp!) the tobacco industry -- the NFL instituted a new return-to-play policy. Both a team physician and an independent neurologist must clear players removed from a game/practice after sustaining a head injury before returning to football activities.
The policy, however, requires that a player actually be diagnosed with a head injury. Therein lies the problem: during the heat and emotion of the game, players are reluctant to be forthright with medical staff. The desire to return to the field -- from players and sometime coaches as well -- can prove overwhelming, especially mixed into the flurry of activity that takes place on an NFL sideline. I saw this in my time in Green Bay in a couple instances with Brett Favre.
Furthermore, the set of questions that a team's medical staff administers -- the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool -- is merely advisory and teams are not mandated to use it. In McCoy's case, it was not administered until the morning after the game.
NFLPA executive committee member Scott Fujita -- a teammate of McCoy's -- has advocated the use of independent neurologists on the sidelines. It is not known whether this possibility was discussed during the recent collective bargaining negotiations; it has not implemented.
In the wake of the McCoy incident, league and union medical officials met Tuesday to determine whether the Browns followed appropriate protocol. Under the new CBA, the NFLPA has authority to make "surprise visits" to club facilities to review health and safety procedures and may also file grievances when warranted.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL's committee on head, neck and spine injuries will review the union's findings. The upshot of this is that we may see the implementation of an independent neurologist on team sidelines at the start of the 2012 season.
The NFL has ramped up its player safety enforcement and discipline -- James Harrison can attest to that- - but can and should do more to protect its players from others and, often, from themselves. The league also remains cognizant of the potential for liability. Speaking of which, after engaging in a summer of courtroom football, the NFL cannot seem to shed itself from the courtroom and again finds itself embroiled in litigation.
During the summer, a group of former players sued the NFL and helmet manufacturer, Riddell, in California state court alleging negligence and fraud regarding the NFL's concussion policy (or lack thereof). Another group of players, headlined by former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and current Browns tackle Joe Thomas (sense a Browns theme here?), filed a class-action lawsuit in Philadelphia federal district court alleging similar claims.
Simply, these lawsuits claim that the NFL has -- for at least the past 35 years -- known of a causal link between playing football and experiencing concussions. The complaints allege that the NFL has not taken the proper steps to: (1) disclose this causal connecton; nor (2) implement appropriate injury prevention procedures and guidelines.
The players also contend that they were trained by NFL coaches to engage in helmet-to-helmet contact as a preferred tackling method. Finally, the players allege that the NFL "turned a blind eye" to concussions, and "actively concealed" the relationship between on-field head injury and post career cognitive dysfunction in numerous sources -- publications, medical studies, and even Congressional testimony.
And now yet another lawsuit -- on behalf of former receiver Joe Horn (someone I tried to sign in Green Bay before he signed with the Falcons in 2007) and 11 other former players -- was filed in New Jersey federal court. Horn's case alleges that NFL teams were negligent in administering Toradol -- a painkiller I have seen used liberally with NFL players -- due to the drug's effect of magnifying the severity of concussions.
What Will Happen?
Squaring off against the NFL in court is a tall task (just ask DeMaurice Smith), due to the league's vast resources and talented legal roster. Further, there are many defenses the NFL can assert against the claims.
Despite these obstacles, the players do assert some valid legal arguments. More than any individual lawsuit, the problem for the NFL is a continuing one of perception. The sport is a violent one and were these cases to ever reach a jury, those juries would see players with serious physical and mental infirmities versus what will be portrayed as the big bad NFL. The specter of that picture may be enough for a settlement.
Regardless of the outcome, in a game where violence is inherent in its nature, it is time for the NFL to continue to get smart when it comes to head injuries.