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When it comes to spotting concussions, NFL walking tightrope

Alex Smith, Anthony Davis

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith slowly gets up after being hit during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. In the background is San Francisco 49ers tackle Anthony Davis. Smith later left the game. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


The NFL has developed a very good procedure for keeping players with concussions out of action until they are healed. But when it comes to spotting a player who suffered a concussion during a game, the NFL’s current protocol doesn’t work.

How do we know it doesn’t work? Because players routinely stay in games after suffering concussions. It has happened at least four times in recent weeks, with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, and Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain all playing after suffering concussions.

Sure, they get spotted eventually. At halftime, like Cutler. Or after the game, like McClain. But with the greatest risk of a serious injury coming from a second concussion in the immediate aftermath of a first concussion, it’s critical that the NFL identify players who have suffered concussions and get them off the field.

Though the NFLPA is right to want independent doctors on the sideline to administer the concussion tests, that serves only to counter the dynamic of team doctors with head coaches peering over their shoulders as the team doctors determine whether the player can still play. The challenge is to determine when the concussion test must be administered.

And that’s where things could get very delicate for the NFL, as we’ve recently explained. It’s one thing to take a player who has suffered a concussion out of action; it’s quite another to remove a player from service for 10-15 minutes to be examined for a concussion that he ultimately is determined to have not suffered.

So what can the NFL do? The helmet-based HIT system could be the only objective way to determine whether a player needs to be checked for a head injury, but that could turn football into a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, where the overriding goal becomes hitting a guy’s helmet enough times to trigger the sensors that will remove the player from the game for concussion testing.

That’s the reality of football. That’s why the player suspensions in the bounty case seem so harsh. It’s a game of attrition. Whether that comes from knocking a guy out of the rest of the game or putting him on the sidelines for however long it takes to administer a concussion test, forcing a key opposing player out of action always will help a team win.