Nov 18, 2016
Eye in the Sky

When Chris Watson, MEd, ATC, CSCS, CES, Director of Sports Medicine/Head Athletic Trainer at Malone University, first told the NFL he was interested in being part of its injury spotter program when it began in 2012, he had low expectations. He thought the positions for athletic trainers to monitor play on the field and point out injured athletes would go to people who were better connected with the league than he was.

“I knew they were starting this program, and I basically sent a cold resume then and said, ‘Hey, I’m [interested] in being a part of this,’ and I gave my background working with USA Track and Field [and] with other professionals,” Watson told The Suburbanite. “They said that they would get back to me, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to hear back about it. I don’t have an in.’”


But then last year, the program expanded from one spotter at each game to two. Each spotter must meet the following qualifications:

• Maintain a current certification by the NATA Board of Certification

• Have an undergraduate degree from a four-year program

• Have a minimum of 10 years experience as a certified athletic trainer

• Have major college and/or professional sports experience

• Never have been employed as a head athletic trainer by an NFL team

• Have not been employed by an NFL team in the past 20 years.


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Watson met all these criteria and was asked to staff four of the Cleveland Browns’ home games this season, in addition to the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, which was cancelled because of issues with the turf. So far, Watson says the experience has been a little bit different than he imagined it to be.

The athletic trainer injury spotters have their own booth at the stadium and are joined by a video technician. During games, the spotters look for any potential injuries in video footage from the contest and have the technician insert a marker—also known as a tag—to the video so the play can be easily located for future viewing. Teams can call up to the spotters’ booth to request tags be placed on specific plays or to discuss plays that have been tagged. Teams can also view the tagged footage on the sideline to help them diagnose and treat injuries.

A big focus of the NFL’s injury spotter initiative is protecting players that may have suffered concussions. According to NFL procedures, when a player with a possible head injury is unstable or showing signs of disorientation, the spotter must immediately notify medical personnel on the sideline so they can take him out of the game. If the player remains on the field, the spotter is supposed to alert game officials, who will then stop the action and remove the player from the game.

When Watson is on duty, he watches for a player’s reaction to a hit to determine the likelihood that he’s suffered a head injury. The first thing he looks for is a player grabbing at his helmet or facemask after a big hit. Another telltale sign is when a player doesn’t respond to an opponent’s trash talks following a big hit.

Watson is quick to point out, however, that his work as an injury spotter goes beyond looking for potential concussions.

“Everyone thinks it’s just head injuries,” he said. “In the preseason game against the [Chicago] Bears, we actually tagged 10 injuries … only one as a possible head injury, so we’re looking at everything … ankles, knees … the Bears sideline actually called up twice, they wanted us to send in replays of a knee injury that we tagged.”

Although he’s now comfortable in his new role as injury spotter, Watson told The Suburbanite that he was initially skeptical about the reception he would receive from the teams and their medical staffs. But he says he has not encountered any problems and believes the league is trying to address player safety the right way.

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