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

Though Redskins rookie followed protocol, some say there's no way he should have played after getting knocked woozy

Only seven 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, something not expected to heal faster than a sprained ankle. 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 still feels slightly 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 four years been devoted to teaching football players of all ages concussions aren't something to be shaken off in one week? The NFL takes great pains to protect quarterbacks, but what about protecting them from themselves with a mandatory one-game leave for any player 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 three days before kickoff that Griffin should sit. Kessel worried even a relatively mild second hit could affect Griffin the way it did NHL star Sidney Crosby, who missed four months last season after coming back from a concussion.

"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.''

It was, in the words of former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, "a joke.''

"Only when it's a marginal player who can afford to be held out do teams err on the side of caution,'' 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.''

Kathleen Weber understands that perception but suggested, in her experience as the Bulls and White Sox team physician, the reality involves putting players' needs ahead of any team's.

"My job is first and foremost for the player and I've never felt pressure to clear somebody,'' said Weber, a sports medicine physician at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush.

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.

Sometimes the public fails to see that athletes recover at different rates, Weber warned.

"Some concussions can clear in a day or two, not everybody has prolonged symptoms,'' Weber said. "I find it hard to believe the Redskins would let (Griffin) return without having all the I's dotted and T's crossed.''

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.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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