Does he look fine?

Photographer: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

NFL's Concussion Spotters Overlooked a Big One

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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When it comes to treating concussions, the NFL still isn't thinking clearly. Millions of fans saw this on full display Sunday.

Late in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens, St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum was sacked hard, his head hitting the ground and immediately grabbing his helmet. He was visibly shaken and unable to stand until a teammate all but pulled up his limp body. With a flag on the field for an unrelated penalty, and a review underway, the Rams' trainer had some time to evaluate his quarterback. He sent Keenum back out without administering a concussion test.

Keenum was diagnosed with a concussion after the game, the NFL has launched an investigation into what happened, and the rest of us are left to wonder where, exactly, the system broke down. Fox commentators Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston noted that while the league has taken measures toward combatting helmet-to-helmet and shoulder-to-helmet hits, it's pretty hard to defend against a player hitting his head on the ground. 

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said that he didn't see Keenum "struggle to get up" -- an incredible assertion when 70,000 people at M&T Bank Stadium and millions at home saw exactly that. But let's take Fisher at his word that he was unaware. That's precisely why we have independent medical spotters to notify officials on the field when they miss a player potentially having a concussion.

The NFL added this new layer of review after February's Super Bowl, in which New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman was allowed to play on after a huge hit to the head. Medical spotters, up in the press box, have access to television replays and are there to catch instances like Keenum's. The spotter, who has yet to be named by a league infamous for its lack of transparency, failed to do his job.

It might not be entirely his fault, however. Reggie Scott, the Rams' head trainer, did run onto the field to check on Keenum. According to Fisher, this signaled to the spotter that the situation was being handled. "Because he saw the head trainer on the field, he didn't feel it was necessary to make the call," Keenum said.

So, these supposedly independent spotters do not have, as some of us thought, the "ultimate power" and "ultimate responsibility" to act. Apparently, they defer to the decidedly unindependent medical trainer and act only if the trainer doesn't.

Scott simply talked to his quarterback, who said he was fine, and quickly decided Keenum wasn't in need of a concussion test. This is where the spotter should have sent a signal that no, he clearly wasn't fine. Equipped with his own medical timeout, the spotter could have contacted the officiating crew to delay the resumption of play so Keenum could be more thoroughly evaluated. Instead he did nothing, and head referee Tony Corrente, who also has the power to stop the game for injury, rushed to get the clock started again.

A highly trained, truly independent spotter could be a great step toward player safety. But one whose ability to act is dictated by the actions of a team's medical trainer is useless. And broadcasters like Albert and Johnston, who fail to call out such glaring failure as the scene unfolds, are shirking their responsibility to keep the league in check. Add them to the bevy of people who didn't do their jobs on Sunday.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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