If there was a day to make sure player safety was of the utmost importance, this was it. Just six days after one of the most gruesome games in recent NFL history, the three-hour car crash known as Steelers-Bengals, the hit happened. This was the first full football afternoon which followed a week of intense national debate over safety in football. It was played under the shadow of a young, vibrant, otherwise healthy man, wondering whether he’d ever walk again.
Surely, if ever there was a time where the NFL would err on the side of caution, here it was. And yet somehow the league zigged the other way with one of the worst lapses in judgement since concussions became a domestic talking point.
In Houston, Texans quarterback Tom Savage was hit hard in the end zone by Niners pass rush artist Elvis Dumervil. The collision was high impact, Dumervil landed on top of Savage, but the hit itself was not dirty. Savage was knocked back into the turf, and smacked his helmet against the ground. He rolled over to his side, his elbows locked, his arms were halfway extended away from his body, and they started twitching.
Seeing any anyone’s body spasm uncontrollably is scary. Witnessing someone on the street have a seizure, or a child on the playground go into shock, is a scarring experience. We were witnessing it for a few seconds in the middle of an NFL game.
We inherently understand the natural dangers of the sport. You cannot somehow make large, fast, athletic men colliding into one another for hours on end completely safe. But the key is now identifying the severity of injuries that were formerly unseen. The fear surrounding brain trauma isn’t just the toll it takes on your body and mind down the road. It’s the fact that we never know how bad the injury initially is.
But the bar is set pretty low on something like this. If a player is convulsing for any reason, dehydration, body spasms, neurological distress, he or she cannot be allowed back on the field. Their day is done, and the week of testing must decide whether the player should return the following game. Seeing Savage convulse was shocking. More terrifying was that he was allowed to return to play.
Texans medical personnel gave him some type of concussion test. Apparently he passed it. And evidently the doctors completely ignored the involuntary twitching he had just suffered. After returning to the game and looking scattershot with errant passes, the Texans removed him and eventually held him out the rest of the game.
“You have spotters in the press box,” CBS Sports insider Jason LaCanfora told me. “Team personnel in the press box. An independent neurologist on the sidelines. Two sets of team physicians. And no one thought that was enough cognitive distress? Or that maybe he needs to sit out an extended amount of time? Maybe have a review that maybe has to take place off the field of play? Common sense says, ‘How did that happen?’ … (Not removing him) is just not good enough.”
Everyone was in C.Y. A. mode when the nation started gasping in horror. Head coach Bill O’Brien pulled the “I’m not a doctor” card. Which is fine, except that refs and coaches and players witnessed it too. Oh, and even though none of them are doctors, how about the… ya know, doctors?
Who exactly were the team physicians that checked out Savage and gave him the green light to return? Mr Magoo and Stevie Wonder? Players will always battle to go back onto the field. Savage doesn’t want his starting gig to be snatched from him due to injury, because he knows how dicey that gets. It’s exactly how he got the job back from Deshaun Watson. That’s why the staff has to save these athletes from themselves.
What could that evaluation have been like? Shouldn’t convulsing on the field be the first test you simply cannot pass? Don’t tell me those guys didn’t know. Footage was circulating on social media within seconds and television replayed it immediately after. No one on the Texans or the league office figured, “Hey, that didn’t look so good. He’s gotta sit.” How can we ever take this league seriously when it discusses player safety and concussion research?
All of this happened in the wake of Ryan Shazier lying in a hospital bed unable to walk, and so many vicious hits last weekend the league had to suspend and fine multiple players from multiple games. If there was ever a time to err on the side of caution when it came to player health this weekend would’ve been it. But the NFL failed yet another test, and Savage somehow passed his. So every time you hear the league say it’s taking brain injuries seriously remember that time they let a player who just lost control of his motor skills trot right back onto the field.