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Head Shots: When sports culture and concussion protocols don’t mix

Head Shots: When sports culture and concussion protocols don’t mix

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images]

Call it the Vlade Divac problem.

Divac was an excellent center for the Los Angeles Lakers and later the Sacramento Kings. He also was known for regularly acting like he had been shoved out of the way by another player in order to draw a foul call by a referee, over time becoming one of the most notorious floppers in sports history.

After Thursday’s football game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers — billed as a rematch of the last Super Bowl — Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton got a ton of ink for what were perceived as repeated concussion-threatening hits to the helmet. Why did this story get so much attention?

1. Because everyone is concerned about concussions in the NFL, but nobody has a solution.

2. Because Cam Newton is always throwing himself on the ground like Vlade Divac and gesticulating wildly to the refs, asking them to call a penalty on the opposing team.

And there’s the Vlade Divac problem. If you are a referee or a coach or a fan, you expect to see players waving to the refs all the time for penalties. You also expect a fair amount of flopping, especially from someone with a tendency to have outsized reactions on camera or even off camera.

Critics of the NFL were atwitter on Friday, saying that the concussion protocol was a failure. That’s in part because the assumption is that the only time anyone is thinking about concussions is when a referee sees another player take a hit from another player or hit the ground. The NFL will tell you that the protocol is actually an ongoing process, and includes the examination of players in training camp, ongoing monitoring by athletic trainers watching every game, and a neuro-trauma physician assigned to give guidance.

When a player is hit hard, the team’s medical staff goes through a checklist that includes things like loss of consciousness, responsiveness, confusion, memory function, concentration, and balance. One of the things they do is give a player some words to remember and then ask them to name those words five minutes later to see if he remembers. They ask the player what time it is, what month, what day, what year. The NFL states:

The additional questions include specific sideline orientation questions that ask players to identify the venue, quarter of game, who scored most recently, the team's previous opponent and whether the team won or lost its most recent game. This process takes about 8-12 minutes.

For a player as important to the success of a team as Cam Newton, those 8 to 12 minutes that the player is out of the game are excruciating for fans, coaches, and fellow players. In a perfect world, everyone would just want Newton to be OK. In other words, please check the quarterback out and only bring him back on the field if he can remember that he didn’t complete half of his passes and lost by 14 points to the Broncos in the Super Bowl, the last game that mattered for the Panthers.

But in reality, sports fans, coaches, refs, and the medical staff all have their vision clouded by flopping, and in some cases, the desire to have their best player in the game. Often, when a player makes a face like they are in pain, the assumption is that they really just want to get a free extra 10 yards out of a referee, not that they are legitimately hurt. So when a player already has complained repeatedly about being tackled, when he finally does take a big hit, the refs see Vlade Divac on the ground.

How do we change that?

I’ll offer some suggestions in future posts.

[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images]

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