Clear-headed?

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Did the Super Bowl Hero Have a Concussion?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Any discussion of last night's Super Bowl will likely begin and end with Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s disastrous late-game decision to throw a pass on second down with the ball at the goal line and Marshawn Lynch looming in the backfield. As we continue to loudly wonder, “What was he thinking?” let’s take a moment to second-guess another potentially disastrous decision: Letting New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman back in the game despite a serious blow to the head.

Edelman took a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in the first of the Patriots’ two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and was visibly shaken up for several minutes. According to tweets from the Detroit Free Press’s Dave Dirkett, the independent medical staff in the booth notified the sideline to check on Edelman, but no action was taken for at least five minutes. Edelman declined to comment on his condition after the game, citing team rules, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said he "didn't have any sense" whether Edelman was impaired after the blow.

The Associated Press today cited “a person with knowledge of the situation” who says Edelman was tested and cleared to play, though it’s unclear when and how thoroughly he was examined. He remained on the field for that drive and returned in the Patriots’ next series, ultimately catching the winning touchdown.

Questioning whether Edelman should have been on the field during the comeback isn’t to suggest that the Patriots wouldn’t have won otherwise. That’s a futile thought experiment and misses the broader point. Rather, it should make us question the effectiveness of a concussion protocol that is seemingly selectively implemented, as well as the validity of the NFL’s claims that concussions were down significantly this season.

Under the system, a “spotter” in the booth has access to several video angles to assess whether a player needs to be checked for injury. The spotter can contact each team's sideline medical staffs to notify them of potential problems. If a player is diagnosed with a concussion on the sideline, he is to be removed from the field and taken to the locker room for further assessment.

The system worked well earlier during the Super Bowl, when Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril was taken to the locker room in the third quarter and ultimately pulled from the game. Yet Edelman never left the sideline.

Two weeks ago, when the Seahawks staged an improbable comeback against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game, similar questions arose after Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took a nasty block from Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews reported that the medical staff only talked to Wilson “for about two seconds,” which isn’t following protocol. Wilson returned to the field.

In both cases, it's hard not to suspect that the brief amount of time taken to evaluate the player means the outcome was predetermined. "Two seconds" hardly seems adequate to properly diagnose a concussion. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but it would be naive not to wonder what roles are played on a medical staff's decisions by the importance of the player and the significance of the game. Nobody wants a championship game to be decided by who wasn’t on the field.

And yet, these are exactly the players, and exactly the games, for which the concussion protocol is needed most. The mentality that nothing matters but the game, not even safety and health, is what has allowed fans to look the other way as these players sacrifice their bodies and brains. Choosing to follow the concussion rules only for less-vital players or in less-meaningful games isn’t compatible with the league's pledge to prioritize safety. As ThinkProgress’s Travis Waldron put it, “If you're not committed to testing players for concussions in the Super Bowl, it's hard to accept the argument that you're committed at all.”

The situation also casts doubt on the NFL’s claim that reported concussions decreased by 25 percent this season, a statistic Commissioner Roger Goodell touted in his annual Super Bowl press conference as evidence the protocol is working. But there’s reason to question the validity of these numbers; are they maybe a sheer statistical anomaly or the result of willful underreporting? It’s yet another way the NFL is using controlled messaging to persuade us its biggest problems are being handled, when the only thing really being handled is us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net