NFL commentary: Griffin's quick return muddles message on concussions

Only 7 days before Robert Griffin III became the first rookie quarterback of the modern era to rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns, a blow to the head made him woozy enough to wonder whether he was RGIII, II or I.

“I still refuse to say I had a concussion,’’ Griffin said of the hit that knocked him out of the Redskins’ loss to the Falcons on Oct. 7. “I had temporary memory loss.”

We all can agree it falls under the category of brain injury. Yet there was Griffin on Sunday in a victory over the Vikings, running for 137 yards as if nothing ever happened, muddling the NFL’s message on concussion awareness and player safety.

Griffin followed NFL protocol every step of his recovery: He left the previous game after being diagnosed with a mild concussion and only returned to practice Wednesday when cleared by a team doctor and an independent neurologist. Yet it feels hypocritical to applaud Griffin’s success after such a short layoff, given how seriously the league wants America to treat concussions.

Haven’t the last 4 years been devoted to teaching football players of all ages concussions aren’t something to be shaken off in a week? The NFL takes great pains to protect quarterbacks, but what about protecting them from themselves with a mandatory one-game leave for anyone leaving a game with a concussion?

As former Giants running back Tiki Barber wrote in USA Today, “If [Griffin] really wanted to be an example for the game, he wouldn’t even have suited up.”

“He passed the NFL’s tests and that means he’s OK to play, but nobody should misinterpret that to say he wasn’t at an increased risk of a career-altering event,’’ said Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute. “While players can pass a test within a week, it doesn’t mean their brain is fully recovered. The tests are not perfect. It was pretty risky.”

The threat of further damage posed such a risk that Roy Kessel, a Chicago lawyer who co-founded SportsBrain LLC, blogged 3 days before kickoff that Griffin should sit.

“It’s not clear there’s any way to really measure how a [concussed] person’s brain is going to perform, and you can’t quantify the magnification of that second impact,’’ Kessel said. “There’s evidence two concussions in near
proximity have greater impact. It was too soon for [Griffin] to return.”

“Only when it’s a marginal player who can afford to be held out do teams err on the side of caution,’’ former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. “The conflicts of interest where trainers and doctors are paid by the team creates a situation where everyone’s job, to some degree, depends on getting players back on the field as soon as possible.”

That Griffin’s coach is Mike Shanahan naturally makes skeptics wonder, even if Super Bowl XXXII was almost 15 years ago. In that game Shanahan, then the Broncos coach, ordered dazed running back Terrell Davis into action even after Davis complained, “I can’t see.’’

“Don’t worry about seeing on this play because we’re going to fake it to you; but if you’re not in there, they won’t believe it,’’ Shanahan said in audio captured by NFL Films.

The Redskins followed procedures implemented leaguewide last winter intended to remove the kind of questions raised now. Yet the questions need to be asked to hold the NFL accountable on its most important safety issue.

“If the lay public understands there’s real science behind clearing someone, they’d understand that in [Griffin’s] case they did the right thing,’’ said Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association’s medical director. “Might future science change our opinion? Possibly. But right now, we go with the best science we have. … Is it perfect? No. No system is.”

On that, everybody agrees.