MLS needs to hold itself to a higher standard on concussion protocol

An extra-time thriller became irrelevant in the 13th minute when Montreal and MLS didn’t take care of a man’s brain


MLS, you are the good guy. While the NFL lets itself wither by allowing players to destroy each other’s brains — and then lies to them about it — MLS has always been something we can be proud of. American soccer is socially aware, open-minded, both respectful and respectable. We, as fans and players, care about American soccer so much because it feels like American soccer cares about us, too.

I’ve been an MLS fan since the league started. I’ve looked forward to every nationally televised game since they’ve been on. For the first time, I wanted to turn off Wednesday’s Toronto-Monreal playoff game. What Montreal and, more so, MLS allowed during the game in letting Hernan Bernardello back on the field after his collision with Jozy Altidore made me sick.

Early in the game Altidore and Bernardello went up to challenge for a ball floating in the air. Bernadello got to the ball first and headed the ball as Jozy arrived late. Altidore’s shoulder hit Bernardello in the head. As Bernardello fell to the ground, it appeared his body went limp, signaling a potential black out (it’s unclear if he actually blacked out, but the possibility is real enough to warrant concern). When Bernardello hit the ground, his head smashed into the surface. If the first collision with Altidore didn’t do damage, surely the hit against the ground did. Bernardello tried to lift his head and body and he immediately looked disoriented.

Nonetheless, he returned to the game minutes later. I had one thought.

Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

I couldn’t believe it was happening. Just a couple minutes later he was back in the game. He went from being unable to lift his head and open his eyes to running around the field in the amount of time it takes me to warm up a Hot Pocket. He stayed in the game until halftime, when he was replaced by Johan Venegas.

When a player goes down with a head injury, here’s the process: The medical staff does a quick check on the field. The trainer checks the player’s pupils and moves a pen across his face to see if he can follow along. They check to see if the player’s facial muscles move normally, if he can talk properly, if he can focus on their faces. Then, as the player walks off the field, they check his movement, whether he’s walking properly, if his body is moving properly. If he passes those tests, then he is deemed fit to play.

Ideally it’s a very low bar for the trainer to decide to do more tests, at which point the athletic trainer asks verbal questions as well. The questions start broad. Does your head hurt? Do you have a headache? Of course, 95% of the time the player says he is feeling fine.

Then the questions get more specific. Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is? Do you remember what happened?

Then there’s a final set of memory questions. The trainer runs off a list of words and numbers, and he asks you to repeat them back.

If the player passes the tests, then he can go back in the game. But here’s the thing to remember: the athletic staff does not have to do the tests, nor is there necessary a guideline for what it takes to pass. It’s all up to the trainers, paid for and dictated to by the team and the team’s owners and coaches. (Trainers are usually good people with good intentions and, like the players, they are put in a horrible position and the league should protect them.) Whether the player gets the tests or is fit to play is up to the discretion of the referee. The only person with the authority to force the tests or keep the player out of the game is the ref.

MLS has a safety net for all of this. For every MLS game there is a spotter watching on TV. The spotter is supposed to call down to someone on the field if he sees something on TV that makes it seem like the player might be in danger.

I’d like to ask that spotter how anyone could have watched that play and not felt something was wrong with Bernardello?

After the match, Montreal Impact coach Mauro Biello said, “[Bernardello] apparently passed all the tests: he knew where he was, what the score was. The issue was more his shoulder.” He also confirmed that Bernardello only came off because of his shoulder.

I have a hard time believing that the Montreal staff conducted all of the necessary tests in the amount of time it took Bernardello to get ready to back in the game. But I’m also not going to say that they didn’t or that he didn’t pass the tests. It’s not a super complicated task to pass these tests.

At some point you need to just look at the damn player and see what happened and make an evaluation. And you have to say, “You know what, maybe we aren’t positive that he’s concussed, BUT THIS GAME OR THIS TROPHY IS NOT WORTH THIS MAN’S LIFE BEING RUINED.” The marginal difference of player quality in making a sub is not worth the potential consequences.

Take two seconds to talk to Taylor Twellman and Alecko Eskandarian and Bryan Namoff and Ugo Ihemelu and the countless others to hear about their experience after concussions and the answer becomes very clear.

Players never want to be taken out of a game, particularly a big game. Beyond the excitement of being in a big match in a cool environment, the man’s livelihood is on the line. If you score a big goal in the playoffs, that’s a contract extension and more bucks in your wallet.

The teams and the league need to protect the players. MLS has a competitive advantage in a ridiculously competitive American sports market in that it is socially aware. It understands the waves of popular consensus. While other leagues put money above player safety because it generates more money, MLS has a chance to generate more money by putting player safety ahead of money.

I honestly can’t believe MLS let this happen. I care about the league and I care about the players, so I hope it never happens again.


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