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NFL’s concussion protocol being put to the test

Concussions have been a complicated issue in the NFL for years and have come to the forefront of sports news in the past week. After two star players, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, did not return to their games after taking hard hits this week, the NFL’s commitment to concussion protocol is being tested. With the AFC Championship less than a week away and Kansas City’s star quarterback still not cleared to play, spectators have been curious to see if the league will make good on the commitment to player safety, regardless of what that will mean for the game. 

Mahomes was removed from the game against the Browns on Sunday after he exited the field stumbling from a hard hit. This put him in concussion protocol, despite the fact that we do not yet know for sure if he suffered a concussion. The reason for this is the NFL’s adjustment to the concussion guidelines in 2018 that dictate “all players demonstrating gross motor instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand)” will be subject to in-game evaluations. If the instability is found by a doctor to have neurological causes, that player is not permitted to return to the game. The protocol has been built and adjusted in a way that takes the decision to play out of the hands of coaches and players and makes it so that only doctors (who are independent of the NFL or any affiliates) can make the call to send a player back onto the field. This is important because for years it has been expected for players to “push-through” and put their health at risk in order to play in an important game, whether it be due to pressure from the team, coach, fans, or themselves. The protocol includes a five-step process to determine if a player can be allowed back in the game and includes comparing scores on neurological and motor tests with baseline scores taken prior to the season. The player’s symptoms will be evaluated and he will be allowed more and more physical activity based on the doctor’s ruling. 

Hall-of-famer Brett Favre weighed in on the matter and expressed feelings shared by many about the subject. “This is a test for the NFL, right now, to see a star player in a crucial, crucial game, what will happen with their decision,” Favre said. “The protocol’s in place. Let’s see if they follow it.” He mentioned the fact that when a player is young, they might see themselves as somewhat indestructible, especially when the stakes are this high. However, he cautioned that one pays the price later in life for being reckless. “If they choose that he doesn’t play, then it’s the right move, because of the long-term damage,” Favre warned. “I’m 51 years old and I’m wondering what tomorrow will bring, because of concussions more than anything.” The NFL has been gradually improving its concussion protocols and policies surrounding when players can return to the field over the years, especially after the $1 billion settlement it reached with former players in 2015, due to how the league handled head injuries and the long-term effects they caused. 

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