Another Set of Eyes
High above the football field, inside a stadium booth, two certified athletic trainers—known as Booth ATC Spotters, or “eyes in the sky”—scan the field and the live broadcast feed to help identify injuries and communicate with team medical staff.
They’re in constant communication with sideline medical staff and can send replays down to the field for the team doctors to review to help diagnose potential injuries.
“The average fan may be watching the big play and where the ball is,” said Dave Surprenant, a certified athletic trainer, after a recent game in Dallas. “We’re responsible for the entire field.”
“We’re responsible for giving the medical staff an additional tool,” he says. “A player may have been hit away from the play—that [the medical staff] didn’t see—but in the booth, we see as much as we can.”
Dave said these athletic trainers communicate with the sideline “so they can better see how the injury took place, and then have better tools to treat those injuries.”
The NFL’s Booth ATC Spotters are trained athletic trainers retained by the League and who are unaffiliated with specific NFL teams, a measure required to ensure their objectivity.
To qualify for the position, an ATC must not have been employed by an NFL team in the past 20 years.
The Booth ATC Spotters have the authority to halt play with a medical timeout if they observe a player who may have suffered a concussion or head injury, yet appears likely to remain in the game without an evaluation from the medical staff. This timeout does not count against either team.
The adoption of the medical timeout marks the first time ever in a major sport that a non-participant can freeze the game clock for player safety.
“The game moves extremely fast,” said Surprenant. “But we have the capability to stop a game and do a medical timeout, so a player can receive the medical care that he needs,” he said.
A New Rule Designed for a Fast Game
The origin of the medical timeout dates back to the 2015 Super Bowl.
During a late drive by the New England Patriots, wide receiver Julian Edelman was sent to the ground by a strong helmet-to-helmet hit from Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.
Edelman stayed in the game and eventually caught the game-winning touchdown for the Patriots.
Despite the fact Edelman was never diagnosed with a concussion, the play demonstrated the need for a mechanism through which a player can receive immediate medical attention in the midst of a game.
One month later, NFL owners approved the new medical timeout.
The NFL’s first medical timeout came during the 2015 season.
The Rams, playing in St. Louis at the time, were leading the Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the fourth quarter.
A Rams running back broke through for a seven-yard run before being tackled by Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake.
The independent spotter called a medical timeout and Blake was taken from the field and evaluated for a concussion.
In the end, Blake was cleared—and was able to finish the game.
How a Medical Timeout Works
In the event the Booth ATC Spotter: (i) has clear visual evidence that a player displays obvious signs of disorientation, is clearly unstable, or displays other obvious sign of concussion; and (ii) it becomes apparent that the player will remain in the game and not be attended to by the club’s medical or athletic training staff, then the Booth ATC Spotter will take the following steps:
- If the player does not receive immediate medical attention, the Booth ATC Spotter contacts the Side Judge over the Official-to-Official communication system to identify the player by his team and jersey number.
- They then contact the medical staff for the player involved to advise that the player appears to be in need of medical attention.
- The Booth ATC Spotter remains in contact with the medical staff until the medical staff confirms that a concussion evaluation has occurred or is underway. It is the Booth ATC Spotter’s responsibility to confirm that a concussion evaluation has occurred prior to the player returning to play. If a Booth ATC Spotter observes a player returning to the game without receiving express confirmation that an evaluation has occurred, the Booth ATC Spotter shall signal to the official for a medical timeout.
- Upon being called by the Booth ATC Spotter, the Side Judge will immediately stop the game, go to the player in question, and await the arrival of the club’s medical personnel to ensure that the player is attended to and escorted off the field. The game and play clock will stop (if running), and remain frozen until the player is removed from the game.
- Medical personnel—including an Unaffiliated Neurological Consultant—will evaluate the player and make a return-to-play decision following the NFL Game Day Concussion Protocol.