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NFL head injuries: Vigilance needs to focus on protection as much as punishment

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I’ve never been a big fan of Steelers linebacker James Harrison’s oeuvre. So I can’t get upset with his one-game suspension for clocking Browns quarterback Colt McCoy last Thursday night. Harrison clearly lowered his helmet as he drilled McCoy’s. It wasn’t Harrison’s most egregious hit, but because of his history, and the resulting concussion suffered by McCoy, it wasn’t surprising the league issued a suspension, the first levied under the harsher new guidelines implemented for just this purpose.

I have just one tiny problem with Harrison’s punishment: The Browns put McCoy back in the game. That’s hardly a get-out-of-NFL-jail-free card for Harrison, but I wonder whether someone on the Browns’ staff ought to be suspended as well.

What’s the point of instituting harsher rules designed to protect players — especially quarterbacks and wide receivers — from potentially vicious hits if their teams aren’t going to take these hits seriously?

First of all, any time a player is hit by Harrison, that player ought to at least be asked what day of the week it is. Harrison is a hard hitter even when he’s clean — and he racked up $125,000 in fines last season when he wasn’t.

But not only did McCoy sit out just two plays, while medical staff examined his hand — according to an angry letter sent to the league by McCoy’s father — no one on the medical team or coaching staff saw the hit, or watched the replay.

Seriously? I can see why McCoy didn’t watch it; he was knocked silly. But there are around a hundred people milling around a typical NFL sideline on game day — what’s their excuse? He was clearly out of it. He has no memory of what happened. Yet Browns Coach Pat Shurmur insisted McCoy acted normally and they followed “all the proper medical procedures” — hard to believe considering the total time he spent on the sideline was about 3 minutes 50 seconds, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Those “proper medical procedures” did not include a SCAT-2 test — standard practice for players who have received hard hits. In fact, two other Browns received the test earlier in the game. But not McCoy.

Shurmur is under fire from the league and players’ union, and General Manager Mike Holmgren came out swinging in defense of his coach Wednesday, saying that Shurmur would never deliberately put a player in harm’s way — which seems obvious — but admitting the SCAT-2 wasn’t administered.

Some players are calling for the addition of a neurologist on the sideline of every game, someone not paid by either team who would make decisions about concussions. Players have long questioned the merits of being treated by doctors whose paycheck comes from the team, and the concussion issue seems to be bringing that conflict to a head, no pun intended.

The players are right to be concerned. The league has implemented tough rules and clear punishments for the perpetrators of helmet-to-helmet hits; it needs to offer strong, league-wide protection for the victims as well. Punishing Harrison is only half the battle.

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