Pop quiz time!
If you see a football player take a big hit to the head and neck area, how do you react? Does your opinion of the situation change when you see the said player try to jog to the sidelines and instead stumble to the ground? What about when replays show the player wincing and shaking his head in what would appear to be an attempt to shake off the hit? What do you do?
All of those things happened to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday. What the Panthers did (or more importantly, didn’t do) is the problem with this entire situation.
Newton took a shot to the helmet in yesterday’s game against the Saints, one New Orleans would later win by a score of 31-26. After the game, when questioned by reporters about his current condition, Newton (who, it should be added, wore sunglasses to his postgame presser) said that the injury was to his eye and not his head. This is actually a very plausible argument; Newton says that when he was smashed to the ground by Saints defensive end David Onyemata, his helmet dropped down into his eyelid and caused the injury. That explanation could very well be truthful.
It also completely misses the point.
Earlier this season, the NFL revamped its concussion protocol after Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a massive hit to the turf in a Week 14 game against the 49ers. Savage was seen lying on the ground with his hands shaking shortly thereafter, but after a brief sideline “evaluation”, he was allowed to return to the game. After his first series back in the game, however, Savage went to the locker room and did not return to the contest.
After this happened, the language of the NFL’s concussion protocol was changed and the league announced in late December that it would require a locker room evaluation for “all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” That is what happened to Newton when he tried to half-trot to the sideline and instead ended up on the ground.
How the league handles this situation will be very telling. In November, the NFL fined the Seahawks $100,000 for failing to properly deal with a potential concussion to quarterback Russell Wilson. That happened because as the team was unfurling the league-mandated blue medical tent around him, he literally grabbed his helmet and came back into the game. So you can’t dispute that he was in the tent for two seconds, but you also can’t dispute that he could not have possibly gotten a real concussion test when he went there. In response, the league fined Seattle $100,000. The problem with that equation is that the Seahawks are owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, a man whose net worth exceeds $20 billion. A $100,000 fine affects Allen and his franchise the same way buying a Whopper at Burger King affects the average person’s finances, which is to say that it has very little influence.
Think about it this way: without Cam Newton, the Panthers would have been forced to ride out the rest of the game with Derek Anderson at quarterback. Anderson is not a bad option to have, but he is by no means on the level of Newton. Therefore, if the punishment you are facing is a $100,000 fine and you have a chance to win a playoff game, you probably want your franchise quarterback behind center at all costs. And chances are you won’t be too worried about his mental status as long as he is good enough to play and can tell you how many of these three fingers you’re holding up. Because if the Panthers win that game and go on a run to the Super Bowl, the $100,000 fine would have been, unfortunately, more than worth it in the big picture.
The NFL just saw its overhauled concussion protocol fail miserably on one of the biggest stages of the sport. Maybe the league should think about imposing serious penalties towards teams that violate it instead of arbitrary slaps on the wrist for this serious and, for the player, potentially life-altering offense.
But then again, that would require the league taking care of its players. Let’s not act like it does.