Are Minor Injuries Used to Mask Concussions?

Concussions and football go hand in hand, and it’s rare to watch a game without noticing at least one possible head injury. With concussion protocol becoming more significant and extensive, one may assume that the National Football League (NFL) abides by these regulations. More often than not, it seems players appear to take a nasty hit to the head and then return to the game just minutes later. With the pressure on players to return to a game – especially the top players in high stakes games – it’s easy to wonder whether the NFL cuts any corners regarding player safety. 

In the October 10, 2021 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers, quarterback Joe Burrow looked like he may have suffered a concussion when he took a hit that caused him to smack his head against the turf. Burrow was swiftly taken off the field only to return moments later after being determined to not have a concussion. Although Burrow did not appear disoriented when he stood up after the initial incident, the hit looked hard enough to have definitely left him at least slightly concussed. It seemed a little suspicious for the Bengals’ best player to return so quickly to such a close game after what anyone else would have most likely called a concussion. 

After the game, Burrow was reportedly brought to the hospital for a “throat contusion.” Although it may sound serious, a contusion essentially is just a bruise. Burrow supposedly was poked in the throat during the game, thus resulting in his throat contusion. While it’s entirely possible that Burrow really did suffer a throat contusion, it is interesting timing that after taking such a hard hit to the head, the only reported injury that he’s being monitored for is something so vague and non-threatening. 

Burrow was evaluated by medical staff after being sacked by the Packers. Photo Credit: Yahoo!News

A similar potential coverup of a concussion occurred last year during the 2021 playoffs, when Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took a hit to the head that left him looking dazed and confused during a game against the Cleveland Browns. While Mahomes was on concussion watch for a few days, he was conveniently cleared in time to play just one week later against the Buffalo Bills – a game that would seal the Chiefs’ fate in earning a spot in the Super Bowl. During the warmups for the Chiefs v. Bills game, there was a significant focus on Mahomes’s foot injury, which was seemingly the biggest physical challenge for him leading up to that game. The extensive coverage made it seem like the foot injury may have been a way to not only distract viewers from Mahomes’s recent head injury, but also a way for them to cover up any potential injuries he may have faced while playing against the Bills. Although we are not in the playoff season yet, Burrow’s throat contusion seems to share some similarities with Mahomes’s foot injury in regard to convenient coverage of a more serious problem. 

The concussion protocol in the NFL consists of a variety of factors. First, “spotters” are set to watch every game to monitor the players on the field. Some of these spotters will be located on the sidelines, while others will be located in a booth that gives them more of an aerial view of the game. The purpose of these spotters is to report anything that doesn’t look right. Every team in the league also has their own neurotrauma specialists who are there to monitor and evaluate players on the sidelines. A player will be evaluated further in a medical tent or locker room in order to determine whether the concussion protocol is necessary. 

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took a serious hit to the head during a 2021 playoff game against the Bears that resulted in a concussion. Photo Credit: Nine.com

Once a player is deemed to require monitoring under concussion protocol, they must go through the same return to play procedure that is implemented throughout the country in every athletic program. This protocol consists of rest and monitored exercise with a medical professional. Once a medical professional deems the player healthy, he can return to play. Since concussion protocol is a 6-step program, the entire recovery process can take anywhere from days to months. It’s a lot to assume that all of these athletes are able to make it so quickly through these 6-step programs just in time to play when it matters. 

The NFL has strict penalties for teams that fail to follow the concussion protocol. These penalties include the potential loss of draft picks and fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  However, the NFL and its affiliates aren’t exactly strangers when it comes to covering up concussions for their benefit. These minor non-head injuries occurring among star players who also have recently hit their heads while playing could act as a way to cover the more serious problem while still providing some sort of medical monitoring. Although there is still a lot to learn about concussions, what we do know is enough for the NFL to consider taking head injuries more seriously than they currently seem to.

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