December 26, 2010
One of the most crucial issues facing football at all levels is how to address concussions. There's a continuously growing body of evidence that they can have horrible physical and mental effects, both during players' careers and for the rest of their lives. Part of the challenge with concussions is on the league front, where suitable protocols need to be in place and independent medical staff need to be involved. Another aspect of the problem revolves around equipment, and there is some progress being made on that front with many of the new helmet models.
A third part has to do with media coverage, though, and a particularly interesting angle of that is how broadcasters address concussions and other severe on-field injuries. Given the inherent violence of football, there are plenty of bad injuries that take place on any given Sunday in the NFL (including ones to Mike Tolbert and Phillip Adams today). The CFL doesn't see quite as many serious injuries each week thanks largely to only playing four games, but there are still plenty of bad ones; just look at all the struggles with concussions Cory Boyd had this year. I spoke to TSN's Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor (pictured, top) in advance of this year's Grey Cup, and got some thoughts from them on their approach to handling serious injuries in games they're calling.
Suitor said the biggest thing for them as broadcasters is to make sure they don't get overly excited about a hit before making sure the player on the receiving end is okay.
"I think the first priority is the player's health and whether or not they're seriously injured," he said. "You obviously have to be real careful to not get caught in the emotion of what could be a good clean hard hit. You have to make sure the player's okay, because at the end of the day, his family's watching too and they want to see if he's okay."
As far as if a hit's illegal or not, Suitor said the key element there is keeping track of the often-evolving rules and how similar situations have been handled. He said it's also fair game to criticize legal but dangerous hits.
"It's back to sort of ‘What's the standard? What's been said by the league? What are we trying to accomplish as far as telling that story fairly and saying it like it is?'" he said. "If it's an illegal hit that wasn't called, we have to say it like it is. That's where we've got to draw on the experience we had playing and rather or not it crosses the football code even if it doesn't cross the rule."
Cuthbert said he tends to leave judgements on if hits are legal or not to Suitor and TSN's studio panel, but he and some of their production staff will point out ones that there might be some debate about.
"I always defer to a guy who's played," Cuthbert said. "If I think there's a question, we'll raise it. The guys in the truck are also very in tune with that. They will prompt the same issue if they think it's presented itself, and that's when we lean on Glen or the panelists who have been on the field before, because I think they're a better judge of what is and what isn't."
Cuthbert said calling big hits is one of the more difficult parts of broadcasting, as it's necessary to strike a balance between recognizing a solid defensive play and praising something that causes a serious injury. He said football's big hits are part of its appeal, but broadcasters are obligated to think of those on the receiving end as well
"There is a fine line, though, because we celebrate the big hit," he said. "People watch that, people want to see it. At the same time, at the end of that big hit, the guy might be hurt and you've got to sense whether or not there's been a significant injury or a guy's just got to shake some cobwebs. You do have to ride that a little bit because if a guy isn't getting up, the celebration of the hit, you've got to end it right there."
Another difficult aspect for broadcasters is where a player's down for several minutes before being carried off. Cuthbert said the most severe injuries are a broadcaster's nightmare.
"That's the one play you hope you never have to call, that's for sure," he said.
They have a tough line to walk, as they have to fill airtime and discuss the play, but Cuthbert said it's crucial that they don't try and make judgements about the player's health.
"One of the things you're not supposed to do is you don't play doctor," he said. "I've seen so often where you anticipate what may or may not be the injury and it's not that. You try and not do that, you take as many looks as you've got, and again, you know there's family watching, so you don't want to be presumptuous or overly dramatic. We've been lucky, touch wood, that we haven't had many serious, serious injuries."
Suitor said another element of severe injuries is that a tough decision has to be made on whether to show replays or not. If they do show them, it can be tough for viewers to watch, but if they don't, viewers aren't informed of what happened. He said those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
"Sometimes, you won't show it," Suitor said."We might show it once and that will be it. That call is often made in the truck by the guy in charge, but we can all sometimes give feedback."
A further element of head injuries for broadcasters is discussing if players should return to the game or not. Dave Naylor, who now works as TSN's CFL insider, was with The Globe and Mail in 2009 when one of those controversial moments came up on a TSN broadcast. Argonauts quarterback Kerry Joseph appeared to have a concussion, but coach Bart Andrus sent him back into the game. Naylor said he was particularly impressed by the way TSN analyst Duane Forde criticized that decision, and he thinks that's set a standard that the network's personnel try to stick to.
"Duane Forde hammered that, absolutely gave him both barrels," Naylor said. "There was no covering for the team."
Naylor's written many stories on concussion policies over the years and has also discussed the surrounding issues on TSN broadcasts. He said in his mind, the media's key role around the issue to keep an eye on teams and the league and ensure they live up to their policies and standards.
"I think the media responsibility is to ensure that appropriate concussion protocols are being used by the teams and leagues and are being followed," Naylor said. "Are there standards there in place and are they being adhered to?"