Football is huge here in the United States. Don’t believe me? Go on Twitter next Sunday and check out the trending topics. Most of them will be about the NFL’s slate of games for the day. The Superbowl accounts for the 21 most watched television programs of all time in the United States. In the past week I’ve seen a commercial starring Peyton Manning, Clay Matthews, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Colin Kaepernick, and Robert Griffin III. Yeah, football is humongous in America. So why is the sport in jeopardy of being very different or not being around at all in the near future? Concussions.
Concussions can be extremely detrimental to one’s body and are far too common in football. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that is caused by severe impact forces. Severe impacts were so common that the rules could have said that players had to be stopped by a severe impact instead of just a tackle and it wouldn’t have come as a surprise. Highlights were filled with huge sacks and blindside blocks. It was part of the appeal of football; people like danger. Most NASCAR fans don’t watch to see 40 drivers turn left for a couple hours; they watch for the severe impact, the crash. This was how the game was played before we understood the extent of the damage caused by concussions.
75% of all concussions received by males happen while playing football. 5-10% of athletes will experience a concussion in any given season, however fewer than 10% of concussions result in the athlete blacking out or losing consciousness, and the concussion often goes undiagnosed. It is estimated that up to 47% of athletes do not report their symptoms after a concussive blow to the head. To put the danger of football in perspective, the impact of a boxer’s punch usually is around 80% of the force of an average football hit.
Junior Seau was a tremendous linebacker. He made 12 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro Teams, and won one Defensive Player of the Year award. Today he is dead from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound to the chest. Before his death, he lived with insomnia for seven years. He sustained multiple concussions throughout his career, and he isn’t the only former player with concussion history to commit suicide. Dave Duerson made four Pro Bowls and won two Superbowls as a great safety. He is also dead, again from a self-inflicted gun-shot wound to the chest. Ray Easterling, another former safety, suffered from depression and dementia before committing suicide. All three of these players had a history of concussions during their playing days and the long term effects of these injuries left them in so much pain that suicide became the best option for them to escape the pain. Imagine how much pain it must take on a daily basis to drive a successful, wealthy, respected and loved human being to shoot themselves as a way to escape it. That is what concussions did to these three players.
In posthumous study of their brains, doctors found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in all three of these players. CTE is caused by having too much tau, a protein that is important but can become defective due to head and brain trauma, in the brain. When it becomes defective it degenerates brain cells and brain tissue, leading to the CTE. CTE is known to cause dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s, lack of impulse control, and increased aggression. These effects don’t usually show up until many years after the head trauma has occurred. Concussions from football caused Seau, Duerson, and Easterling to contract CTE, which led to their eventual suicides.
But these three are just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless football players at all age groups that suffer concussions every day. Many of them are highschoolers that are fighting for playing opportunities or scholarships and hide them from their coaches, doctors, and families. It seems like the right thing to do for them at this point, since the only way they can earn scholarships to play at universities is by showing what they can do on the field, not by resting until they are healthy. This is extremely problematic, since concussions are more likely to occur again once a player has already had one and are even more likely if they are still suffering from concussion like symptoms. By playing they put themselves at an even greater risk of developing CTE much later in life. Since 1997, there have been reports of roughly 50 high school football players dying from a severe blow to the head during either a game or practice. More often than not, the athlete had suffered a concussion previously which contributed to his death.
Fortunately, the NFL is taking steps to minimize concussion risks, set an example for highschool and college to follow, and to help former players battle their mental illnesses. Since 2010, the NFL has implemented rule changes designed to increase player safety. Some of these include stricter rules on hitting a defenseless player, banning an offensive player from leading with their head to hit a defender, and reducing kickoffs, one of the more dangerous plays. They have also made it much tougher for a player to return to the field once they have been diagnosed with a concussion. In February 2013, General Electric and the NFL agreed on a $50 million, 5 year deal to create new technology that predicts brain injury and rate of recovery, shows severity of the injury, and to also create more protective padding. For the first time this season, doctors now have iPads with a concussion assessment tool to quickly diagnose concussions on the sidelines. After three quarterbacks suffered concussions in one week in 2012, the NFLPA proposed that an independent neurologist was present on the sidelines for each game.
The NCAA is following in the NFL’s footsteps and is also taking steps to prevent concussions. During the 2009 season, there were specific rules added to prevent any serious brain damage from occurring. The first of these rules was that any player sustaining a concussion or concussion like symptoms was to remain out for the remainder of the game. The second rule was that an athlete was to remain sidelined from all activity until cleared by a medical professional. Highschools are also changing rules to make the game safer. Once a player’s helmet has come off, it’s illegal to make contact with them and they can’t make contact with anyone else. The rule also requires them to sit out for a play. Furthermore, they are educating their young players about the dangers of concussions and how to avoid them by tackling and playing with the proper technique.
In addition, the NFL has settled with the more than 4,500 players that were suing it for $765 million. Among the reasons for suing the NFL were concealing the dangers of concussions and rushing players back to the field to earn money off of them. This money will go toward compensating the victims of football related brain injuries including paying for medical treatment and examinations, and research about concussions and long term health detriments arising from them. This money is available to all 18,000 former NFL players, not just the 4,500 who were a part of the lawsuit. Former players with Alzheimer’s are eligible for up to $5 million, those with dementia $3 million, and those who were diagnosed with CTE posthumously $4 million. These are all marked improvements for a league which has put a real emphasis on player safety in recent years. However, these changes lead to questions of how this will affect the league in the years to come.
Some would argue that in light of these recent events, the NFL may lose some of its fans. People may be turned off by the fact that the NFL hid information that they may have known about the dangers of concussions to further endanger the players for the sake of making some money. Most NFL fans, especially the hardcore ones, won’t be bothered by this, but to some it could leave a bad taste in their mouths that could be difficult to get over. In addition, more fans may not particularly like all of these rule changes that are changing the way their beloved game is played. This is especially true for older fans who remember the days where running the ball and colliding into each other was the norm, not wide open passing attacks. My dad, a 50 year old, constantly brings up how sports today are “softer” than they used to be, especially in basketball or football. Again, for hardcore football fans, not watching football anymore is highly unlikely, but some of the older fans may lose interest in a sport that is increasingly distancing itself from what they would consider the glory days.
A loss of fans could hurt the NFL in the only place where it would be vulnerable, it’s bank accounts. The majority of the revenue that the NFL brings in comes from the media and television rights, but individual teams still do rely on ticket sales and selling merchandise. If enough fan backlash comes from changing the game the NFL would be forced to consider possibly undoing some of these rule changes. This is a very unlikely scenario, but the NFL must consider it.
In addition, some of the rule changes can cause other injuries to befall players. Dustin Keller, tight end of the Miami Dolphins, suffered a devastating knee injury in the preseason that ended his season due to a defender going low on him to avoid hitting him in the head and drawing a flag. With a concussion, he would have been back in a couple weeks but now he might miss a year and a half depending on how smooth his recovery is. The majority of players would rather miss only a game or two now and deal with what may come later in life from concussions than miss an entire season due to a knee, ankle, or foot injury, including future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Matt Forte, star running back for the Bears, has been adamantly opposed to some of these rule changes as well, calling some of them “absurd”.
This mentality that Gonzalez and Forte share underscores the root of the problem that the NFL is facing. No matter what it does, football will always be a violent game and it’s players will do whatever it takes to be out on that field on Sundays. The NFL is attempting to rid the sport of this nature in light of the recent discoveries of the long term effects of concussions, but football has been played a certain way for so long that it will be extremely difficult. Football can be made safer, but it will never be safe.