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NFL Concussion Protocol?

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

My love affair with football lasted twenty-five beautiful years, more than most marriages, beginning with contact football at age ten and hanging up my spikes forever in 1994 at age thirty-five. While I aged considerably, as evidenced by my whitening hair, I had a front row seat to the evolution of football.

In the 1980s, when I started my career with the Cowboys, football was primal, and the rule book was not so thick. Quarterbacks would stand out there like raw meat to be mauled, and the offensive lines employed every grab-n-hold and hit scheme to slow the defense down or, better yet, remove them from the action. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was unheard of in my early playing days. Careless, insensitive, and uneducated terms such as he got his bell rung or took a nap permeated the league as euphemisms for being knocked unconscious.

My one and only nap struck while I chased down an interception at the Colosseum. I dove head-first into a convoy of linebackers to tackle the ball carrier. I was later told that I had achieved my kamikaze mission, but that was long after waking up to see a startling blue sky and my trainer’s nostrils bearing down on my face.

“What day is it?” the trainer asked as his brow creased and eyes narrowed. “Do you know where you are, Doc?” he followed with not a hint of sarcasm.

“It's Sunday, and we’re in the Coliseum. Help me up,” I grimaced as I worked to lift my head. I hated this attention and wanted to get off the field as quickly as possible. I got to my feet fast but stumbled as my legs were the last to wake up. Another trainer joined us on the field to guide me toward the bench. These two guys had their hands full with 300 lbs. of clumsy meat as we weaved our way off the field.

Since there was no concussion protocol in those days, I must have passed muster because I knew where I was. So, they cracked an ammonia cap for me to sniff on. It snapped my head back and blew my tear ducts open within an instant. Those caps could raise the dead. At least that was true for most players. On the next play, one of our defensive backs dove in awkwardly to assist on a tackle. After the whistle, he was motionless until his body began to convulse. The trainers collected the damaged goods, parked him next to me, and offered him a cap that rested on his upper lip as he inhaled several times harder than usual. Just watching those strong inhales, my head would pull back, yet he did not flinch. Instead, the next referee whistle alerted him like a trained dog as he shook loose and re-took his spot. Meanwhile, I was still working to recover from my hit.

Since that was the only nap I took in eleven years, I count myself among the lucky ones because my cognitive abilities remain unaffected. However, it concerns me that the league played naïve for so long. Any rational business would have kept me out of the action for at least the rest of the game to ensure product longevity. It was clear that my safety was not their primary concern. Like livestock, I needed to produce because as the Cowboys’ Tex Schramm boldly stated, “The players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers. And the owners can always get more cattle.”

It disappoints me to see Schramm’s old school mentality still alive and well as injured players are easily discarded for fresh meat. Moreover, the current concussion protocol needs a radical overhaul to avoid being out of touch with the medical community. As neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine Dr. Andrew Huberman explains, “there is no way to determine all the consequences of a head hit in the minutes and hours that follow . . . safe to play is something that needs days to monitor to decide accurately.” Not to mention the absence of medical equipment, MRIs and the like, that are necessary for a comprehensive evaluation. I would bet that these assessment tools never make their way into locker rooms. Too expensive, just get more meat.

Every year guarantees another reminder of the flawed protocol. During the 2022 season, Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was back onto the field shortly after he absorbed a shocking blow to the head after he staggered and grabbed for something only he saw. It made me ill watching this elite athlete in desperation. Apparently, the franchise-paid doctor and trainers cleared him and he was back in play. Any rational person would question their impartiality given the interests of their employer. How can this not be a fundamental conflict of interest? Yet, the porous approach and biased decision-making persist.

More on this topic and others in my memoir, Aggressively Human, available here: Amazon: Aggressively Human. You can also order autographed copies via

1 commentaire

How right you are, Steve. Over the twenty years I taught my class, we read and talked about the delicacy of the brain being knocked against the hardness of the skull, but the CTE information wasn't known yet. The visible signs were everywhere, but until Omalu opened that skull and sectioned the brain in 2017, there wasn't the evidence to make people sit up and take notice. There are still those who think he was wrong… even the brain injuries in HS & younger players are horrendous, but many choose to ignore the findings...

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