Saturday, September 24, 2011

Does The NFL Need To Hire Independent Game-Day Doctors For Sidelines?

In light of Boomer Esaison's recent comments on Tony Romo's rib/lung injury in last Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, I've been thinking about the role of doctors on the sidelines of an NFL game.

Typically, each NFL team will carry a certain number of orthopedic surgeons and regular medical physicians on the sideline at each game.  Multiple doctors are needed for those instances when more than one player is injured, or when a player needs to go to the locker room for an evaluation.  Of course, there are also athletic trainers and other ancillary medical personnel there as well.  Other specialists such as neurologists, ophthalmologists, and dentists are on-call.

These doctors are usually not paid.  Many times they come from a medical practice or hospital that has some kind of exclusive medical contract with the team.  In return for their free services, they may get to advertise that they are ___'s team doctors.

Despite not getting paid by the team, there is most certainly considerable pressure from either the player or the team to get an injured player back on the field as soon as possible.  This is where the problem lies.

Who Really Protects The Players?

A rational individual would hope that the doctors are making the best decisions for the players' health, but look at the case of Tony Romo.  Whether or not they knew that he had a punctured lung when he went back into the game in the third quarter, they did know that he had a fractured rib. Yet he was allowed to go back out onto the field to play, and after the game it was revealed that they discovered a pneumothorax along with a punctured lung.

Romo may have badly wanted to play, and understated to the doctors in the locker room the amount of pain that he was having.  However, if a possible outcome of having a fractured rib is that you could develop a punctured lung and a pneumothorax (potentially life-threatening, too, by the way), the doctors need to use that as a reason to block a player like Romo from getting back in the game.

It's not just Romo where we've seen some questionable decisions.  In the Sunday night game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles, Jeremy Maclin suffered an illegal shot to the head by the Falcons' Dunta Robinson.  Maclin fell like a brick to the ground and laid there for several seconds before getting up.  He most certaintly looked dazed as he was helped off the field.  However, a few plays later he was back on the field, much to my surprise.  I was certain that he should have had a concussion.

There are probably several questionable medical clearances that happen during a game over the course of an NFL season.  It's understandable considering the high-stakes nature of the NFL, and the quick pace of the games.  Players don't want to be sitting on the sideline too long for fear of losing their job or the game.

Where Does The NFL Stand On This?

In this new era of trying to maximize player safety, the NFL is caught between a rock and a hard place.  Trying to protect the players (who usually don't want a lot of protecting during the game) while at the same time appeasing demanding teams/coaches is like walking a tightrope.

For that reason, I believe that in the near future the NFL will need to hire an independent group of doctors to oversee each teams' sideline that reports directly to the NFL/NFLPA.  Yes, the teams will have their own medical staff who will continue to work closely with their players, but I believe that having a supreme medical authority who is completely independent of the team they are covering will ensure better player safety.

The independent medical authority doesn't have to be the one evaluating/examining the player, just overseeing it.  This is just like how the replay officials in the booth oversee the ones on the field.  It's the only way to ensure that the players are getting objective medical assessments without fear of reprisal.

What do you guys think? Am I over-reacting, or is this a long overdue development?

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