During the last few NFL seasons, the dominant discussion has been about player safety—particularly when it comes to concussions. In 2009, the NFL formally admitted that players were indeed at higher risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, particularly those that suffered repeated concussions. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia, memory loss, confusion, and depression, and due to studies performed over the past two decades, has been linked to repetitive head trauma, which is likely for NFL players to experience.
The public and media conversation surrounding the issue is broad. Some opinions can be extreme and insensitive:
But there are also a lot of activist groups forming that are concerned about player safety in football:
Most people seem to have slight skepticism on both sides of issue:
But how has the NFL been dealing with it?
The controversy surrounding concussions in football started over 20 years ago when former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue denied the risk of concussions in football by essentially saying it was media hysteria.
The league went on to continue denying the link between concussions and football, even as they paid former NFL center Mike Webster disability benefits due to his "total and permanent" dementia that resulted from head injuries.
After Mike Webster's death in 2002, his brain was examined, and for the first time Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was cited as a reason for his mental condition. He was only 50 years old when he died.
In the ensuing years, previously published NFL studies that claimed there was no connection between concussions and brain damage were contradicted by new, independent research.
So what has been done?
Since 2009, a number of rule changes have come to fruition that are intended to reduce the number of concussions in the league including:
- It is an illegal "blindside" block if the blocker is moving toward his own endline and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side, and the initial force of the contact by the blocker's helmet, forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of an opponent. Penalty: 15-yards.
- It is an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver if the initial force of the contact by the defender's helmet, forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of the receiver. Penalty: 15 yards.
- A player who has just completed a catch is protected from blows to the head or neck by an opponent who launches.
- All "defenseless players" are protected from blows to the head delivered by an opponent's helmet, forearm, or shoulder.
- Kickers and punters during the kick and return, and quarterbacks after a change of possession, are protected from blows to the head delivered by an opponent's helmet, forearm, or shoulder, instead of just helmet-to-helmet contact.
- The ball is declared dead at the spot if a runner's helmet comes completely off.
But of course with the rule changes, there comes an entirely new form of controversy and concern for the integrity of the game, particularly on the defensive end of the ball.
With NFL players getting bigger, stronger and faster each year, the league certainly isn't devoid of big hits, even with the rules changes.
And with hits like these, it's no surprise that concussions are still a common injury. Even if helmet-to-helmet hits were completely eliminated from the game, it wouldn't even cover the majority of the causes of concussions.
In fact, the trend seems to be continuing upward:
This of course could partially be due to new guidelines for when players are allowed to return to a game after a blow to the head , which would have previously gone unreported.
So that leaves improvements in equipment technology. The NFL and GE have partnered to award up to $10 million each year to companies and individuals developing the latest advances in protection from traumatic brain injury.
There are also discussions about helmet technology.
Head Impact Telemetry System (HITS) sensors are also being incorporated by many football programs, especially in the NCAA, in an effort to better detect when a serious impact to player's head has occurred. While these systems aren't currently able to be used diagnostically, funding from the NCAA and other organizations has allowed researchers to make great advancements in determining how concussions occur and the severity of these types of hits.
By now the seriousness of the concussion issue has permeated every level of football, and awareness is at an all-time high.
Hopefully through awareness, taking better precautions and preventive measures, and developing more effective technology, we will be able to curb the rate of concussions in football and allow players to remain healthy throughout the rest of their lives.