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NFL doesn’t have independent neurologists on sidelines during games

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions

DETROIT - OCTOBER 16: Patrick Willis #52, NaVorro Bowman #53 and Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers tackle Jahvid Best #44 of the Detroit Lions during the second quarter of the NFL game at Ford Field on October 16, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. The 49ers defeated the Lions 25-19. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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Though Eagles and Lions fans understandably disagree, something stinks about the ability of quarterback Mike Vick and running back Jahvid Best to re-enter their respective games on Sunday after suffering possible concussions. If, as the “WHEN IN DOUBT, LEAVE THEM OUT” memo sent by the league to all teams before the season states, players should be removed from games if there is “any suspicion” they have suffered concussions, Vick and Best should have been shut down.

The problem arises from the absence of independent neurologists at games. “The team medical staff examines players during games,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told PFT via email. “The team neurologist is not required to attend games.”

The league relies on independent neurologists when determining whether a player who has been diagnosed with a concussion will be cleared to play. The thinking is that independent neurologists won’t be influenced by the inherent tension that a team physician experiences when caught between the interests of their patients and the interests of the teams that employ them. It’s a coveted assignment for doctors, whose practices realize a significant boost when they become hired by an NFL team. Most doctors don’t want to jeopardize that job by keeping football players from playing football.

It’s arguably more important to have truly independent neurologists available during games, when players possibly can get back on the field despite suffering a possible concussion.

Specifically, independent neurologists should have the power to hold players out of a game until it is determined, by the independent neurologist, that any player with a possible concussion has neither a concussion nor “concussion-like symptoms.” The process could be aided by the presence of a safety official in the replay booth, whose duties would include monitoring the live action, replays, and anecdotal evidence from the sidelines for the purposes of flagging players who must be held out until cleared to return by an independent neurologist assigned to each team.

It’s a relatively simple fix that the NFL and its players should welcome, if the league is truly serious about dealing with the dangers of concussions. During games, doctors wearing polo shirts bearing team logos will be hesitant, when in doubt, to hold players out, especially when the players and the coaches want to get the players back on the field. The NFL needs to have someone with true independence involved in the process of determining which players should be keep on the sidelines due to concussions (or other potentially serious injuries, like punctured lungs or fractured eye sockets) at a time when the heat of the battle will compel players and coaches to take potentially unnecessary risks -- and to have a dim view of any team physicians who try to stand in the way.

If Eagles doctors had deemed Vick a “no go” during Sunday’s game with the Redskins and if the Eagles had lost the game without Vick at quarterback and if it later was determined that Vick didn’t have a concussion, the Eagles doctors who contributed to the slide to 1-5 possibly wouldn’t have been Eagles doctors for much longer. Until that environment changes, with the game-day judgment of team doctors trumped by the discretion of independent physicians, a potentially dangerous loophole will continue to exist.