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NFL and its players union announce a change to the league's concussion policy


The NFL is under scrutiny yet again over concussions. This weekend the league announced a change to its concussion policy after a dramatic hit against a star quarterback. Will that change be enough to protect its players? NPR's Becky Sullivan is here to catch us up on this debate. Hi, Becky.


PFEIFFER: What happened with this quarterback?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. So this most recent round of talk about concussions started in the last few weeks after Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took a hit in a Sunday game against the Buffalo Bills. He looked a little wobbly for a moment afterward, but he was cleared by doctors and came back to the game. And then he was allowed to come back for the Dolphins' next game the following Thursday night - so just four days later. In that second game, he took a big tackle. His head hit the ground hard, showed very obvious signs of concussion, had to be carted off the field. And afterward, there were a lot of criticism about how this guy could have been allowed to play after seemingly wobbling around just a few days before.

PFEIFFER: And how has the NFL responded to all this?

SULLIVAN: Well, over the weekend, the league and the players union released a joint investigation about the incident, and they announced this change in the concussion policy, as you were saying. The investigation essentially showed that the league's old protocol was followed and that Tua didn't show any signs of - any symptoms of a concussion when he was being evaluated nor in the days afterward. So the change to the policy is that players cannot return to a game if they show ataxia, which is the medical term for the kind of trouble with balance or stability that you see with concussions. Previously, players could go back if there was another explanation for the unsteadiness. And in Tua's case, they had said it was a back injury.

PFEIFFER: And, Becky, is there any consensus on how much time NFL players should be taking to recover from a concussion?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of differences in concussion studies. But the NFL's top medical adviser said this weekend that the median time away from the field for players with a concussion is nine days. Broadly speaking, that does fit with current concussion research. I talked to Christopher D'Lauro. He's a cognitive neuroscientist at the Air Force Academy who said that sounds about right to him. He said elite athletes like NFL players generally recover faster than normal people for concussions for a lot of reasons, two of which are that, first, these guys are incredibly fit and healthy, which likely helps them to recover faster. And second, they have access to around-the-clock medical care. And then the other thing that he emphasized is that concussions can just be really hard to diagnose. You can't just test for it like you can for strep throat.

CHRISTOPHER D'LAURO: You go take your kids to the pediatrician, and they do the rapid strep. And it's like you're good or you're not. There's nothing like that for concussions. It's all clinician judgment. So it is pretty hard.

SULLIVAN: Essentially, it's a tough job for doctors out there.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Becky Sullivan. Thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.