No matter how much they try to make objective, impartial decisions regarding players' fitness, the trainers and medical staff for NFL teams aren't oblivious. They realize that coaches, front-office executives and teammates are concerned about the health and well-being of each individual player. But they also know that there's a strong desire to see injured players return to action as soon as possible, which is the wish of every injured player, too.
There's no telling how much subliminal pressure factors into decisions when a player is deemed healthy. If it's a 50-50 call, do the staff err on the side of caution? Or do they cross their fingers and send the player back on the field?
The NFL finally took a step toward addressing the potential conflict of interest on Wednesday. The league announced that a certified athletic trainer, paid by the NFL, will be at each game to monitor play and provide medical staff with "any relevant information that may assist them in determining the most appropriate evaluation and treatment."
Plans for independent evaluators had been discussed previously, but the league sped up the process after the Cleveland Browns' actions during a Dec. 8 game. Quarterback Colt McCoy suffered a concussion after being hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, but the Browns sent McCoy back in the game two plays later.
McCoy finished the game, but he hasn't shaken symptoms from the concussion and hasn't been cleared to practice since. Harrison, who was fined and suspended one game for an illegal hit, said that the Browns should be penalized for allowing McCoy to return, but the league declined.
The change comes more than two months after San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman suffered a concussion that wasn't diagnosed until after the game against the New York Jets. He was clearly wobbly and shaky after the play in question, but he continued to play after waving off assistance from concerned officials and coaches. He suffered a seizure on the plane ride back to San Diego.
Concussions have been a focal point in the NFL for a couple of years now, but many former players are still suffering from the lack of attention in decades past. A dozen former players filed a federal lawsuit this month, alleging that the league was negligent and ignored overwhelming medical evidence regarding long-term brain injuries. Another former player was in the news this week, battling the effects of concussions during his career.
Independent trainers under the new NFL policy will not have the authority to keep a player from the game. But at least they provide a set of eyes not draped in team colors.
It's a start.