By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – The NFL rarely shies away from issuing fines to its players — sometimes handing out fines of thousands of dollars for what can sometimes seem like minor violations.
Bearing that in mind, fans can be understandably puzzled by the league’s lack of similar response to two players – Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari and New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis – who violated concussion protocol during wild-card games on Jan. 5 (Green Bay versus San Francisco) and Jan. 4 (New Orleans versus Philadelphia).
While the doctors on hand followed protocol and the committee acted quickly in its purview, the league itself did not fine Bakhtiari or Lewis for breaking what is a cardinal safety rule: Never play with a concussion.
On the other hand, in 2004, Sean Taylor and Clinton Portis got fined $5,000 each (and $10,000 each the following week) for wearing red socks instead of white ones. Leading up to the Super Bowl in 2007, the league fined Brian Urlacher $100,000 for wearing a hat bearing the logo of a non-NFL-authorized sponsor. Ryan Clark had to pay $5,000 in 2008 after etching “21” in his eye black in remembrance of the same Sean Taylor, who had recently been killed. In 2010, Nate Burleson revealed a shirt that said, “What up doe” in pregame introductions and was fined $10,000. This year, Cam Newton got fined $10,000 for visor clips, even though he blacked out the logo, and Robert Griffin III had to pay $10,000 for wearing an “Operation Patience” T-shirt during warm-ups for a game in which he did not even play. Most recently, Marshall Lynch was docked $50,000 for refusing to speak with the media.
That list excludes many other examples and the entire category of fines for celebrations deemed inappropriate.
The league often cracks down even harder when safety is at risk, such as in cases of helmet-to-helmet hits.
In the cases of both Bakhtiari and Lewis, safety was definitely a factor. They were flagged for concussion testing and not cleared to go back in the game, but both refused to follow the instructions of the medical staff. Bakhtiari returned for one play before being removed, and Lewis refused to leave the sideline.
Both actions clearly violate the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee’s Protocols Regarding Diagnosis and Management of Concussion.
“If a player exhibits or reports signs or symptoms of concussion on the field and does not require emergent transport for more serious brain injury and/or cervical spine injury, he must be removed and evaluated by the Club medical team,” the document reads. “This evaluation shall include a sideline and/or locker room examination utilizing the NFL Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool. The entire assessment is to be completed, compared to the baseline assessment and subsequently entered into the player’s medical record. Same-day return to practice or play in a case of a diagnosed concussion is strictly prohibited.”
The NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee – which does not have input on whether or not players are fined – responded promptly to those players’ actions with a letter to all the NFL’s teams and their trainers. The letter reiterated the importance of following concussion protocol, confirmed that the team medical staffs acted appropriately and encouraged staff members to seek help from coaches if players were uncooperative.
“That can be a little bit of a challenge when you have a very large professional athlete getting upset with you,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, the director of athletic medicine services at Princeton University and the chair of the Return-to-Play Subcommittee of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee. “You need then ask the coaching staff to help you, to settle a player down and make them understand that this is in their best interest.”
Many might feel Bakhtiari’s offense worse than that of Lewis, who simply did not leave the sideline. However, there is rationale behind that part of the protocol, too. Players are supposed to leave the sideline because monitoring an individual in a locker room in case symptoms worsen is much easier than trying to keep track of that person roaming the sideline – possibly lobbying to get back in the game – with 100 or more other people.
Bakhtiari and Lewis clearly put their health at risk, unlike the players who wore hats of the wrong sponsor, donned socks of the incorrect color or refused to talk to the media.
While the indiscretions have not received much public attention, Lawrence Jackson, a former first-round pick out of USC who played five seasons in the NFL, said an internal reminder to teams will likely be the extent of the league’s attention to the matter.
“I think that you’re going to see, if they haven’t already, see a league memo as to sideline protocol for a concussion,” Jackson said in a phone conversation Friday. “They send a message league-wide, and the coach usually announces it in a team meeting, so I’m pretty sure something like that has already happened or will happen now that it’s getting more attention. I don’t think you can fine anybody for it. You just have to set a standard of behavior in that regard. Then you can start fining people. From now on if somebody has a concussion and they stay on the sideline, they most likely will be liable to get fined, but you can’t fine a guy right now.”
If the past is any indication, though, the NFL could fine a player whenever it wants. One would think putting oneself in danger on the field merits more of a punishment than wearing attire incompatible with the league’s dress code – but apparently not.
“[The rule] is an important element of the league’s protocol and intended to safeguard the player’s well-being and enhance his ability to recover from his injury,” NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee co-chairs Hunt Batjer and Richard Ellenbogen wrote in the letter.
Most would agree the rule is an incredibly important one – just evidently not important enough to the NFL to enforce as forcefully as it has rules pertaining to dress code.
With more research emerging about the long-term effects of multiple concussions, dialogue about player safety has increased, and rules have been changed to eliminate the hits that 10 years earlier would have been glorified on highlight reels.
The constant, it seems, has been the willingness of players to return to play despite concussions. In 2009, the Associated Press conducted a survey of 160 players, and 30 said they had either hidden a concussion or played down its effects. In a 2013 article written by brash Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, he claimed he had hidden a concussion before, would do it againand would not call attention to a teammate who appeared to be concussed but continued playing. Detroit wide receiver Dorin Dickerson told reporters after a game that he continued playing after seeking “a little concussion” that he “thought [he] could get through,” according to CBSSports.com.
“I mean, honestly, probably, after we leave here, I probably won’t remember talking to you guys,” Dickerson said. “I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m just telling the truth.”
While many players try to stay in games to be there for their teams, another motivation is keeping a job.
“Some guys have more security than other guys,” Jackson said. “If you’re not A-plus all the way to like a B-minus player, and you’re out there, if you’re like a B or below, then you don’t have as much security.
“If Darrelle Revis got a concussion, he’d come out,” Jackson added, “but if you’re a guy who’s third up on the roster and you get you’re chance to start, I don’t think you’re going to come out unless it’s really bad.”
The toughness factor also plays a role in players wanting to remain in games. Some of the most dramatic and revered sports stories – Ronnie Lott and the amputated pinkie, Michael Jordan and the flu, Curt Schilling and the bloody sock – center around playing through pain.
The doctors and trainers are on the sideline to cut through all those elements and determine if a player is medically fit to go and get banged around on the field.
Putukian said the protocol – while it might aggravate players who desperately want to return to the game – is designed to keep them safe.
“We’ve done our best to try to put forth a standardized assessment that does incorporate, once diagnosis is made, that the athlete is removed from play and the reasoning for that is to protect the athlete and allow them to be monitored in a setting that is quiet and protected to make sure that they don’t deteriorate,” Putukian said. ”I know it’s challenging, certainly, for the players, but in the end, it’s in their best interest.”
With the committee determining proper protocol and the trainers and doctors working to carry it out, it seems that if nothing else the league should at least treat violations of concussion protocol as seriously as it does uniform violations.
The actions of Bakhtiari and Lewis might affect the financial bottom line less than Urlacher wearing a Vitamin Water cap, but for a safety-conscious NFL, enforcing the authority of doctors as mercilessly as it goes after dress code violators should be a no-brainer.
Multiple calls to the NFL seeking comment and a call and an email to the NFL Player’s Association were not returned.