The NFL's Concussion Crisis
In the National Football League (NFL) and in tackle football in general, we have always known the long term risks associated with playing, like not being able to run or walk properly when a player retires and becomes of old age. Another injury that players constantly suffer is concussions. In the NFL, concussions are usually caused from one playing running at another, and in a effort to tackle or get past them, they lower the crown of their helmet and use it as a weapon against their opponent, hitting them in the head. Even if the player passes concussion protocol and is cleared to play, their head is still injured and the buildup of hits like that can cause serious long term brain injury.
At first the NFL was telling people that concussions were a relatively safe type of injury to sustain, but until recently the league has changed course and has made multiple rule changes in order to protect player safety. One reason they shifted perspective is the autopsy results of several former NFL players who committed suicide including Junior Seau (2012) and Aaron Hernandez (2017). What doctors found was deformed brain tissue which they diagnosed as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a degenerative brain disease that can only be discovered in a autopsy of a deceased player. In CTE a protein called Tau slowly spreads throughout the brain, killing brain cells. The symptoms of CTE include impulsive behavior, emotional instability, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or behavior. In Aaron Hernandez’s case, the former New England Patriots tight end was serving a life sentence for the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2013. In April of 2017 the 27 year-old Hernandez hanged himself with a bedsheet in his cell in a Massachusetts prison. After his brain was studied in a autopsy, it was discovered that he had stage 3 CTE which researchers have never found in anyone younger than 46. With CTE of that severity it is no surprise that he had emotional volatility and rage which led to the murder of Odin Lloyd.
The NFL saw the long term damage that concussions and even minor head trauma can cause. They have made 50 rule changes related to player safety since 2002. Despite these changes, the concussion numbers aren’t showing any improvement, in 2012 there were 173, 128 in 2013, 115 in 2014, 182 in 2015, 167 in 2016 and last year there were 179 in-game concussions. At that point the owners of NFL teams decided to make a more extreme rule change and made it a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate contact. The problem with the rule changes made in the past like in 2013 when the league prohibited a runner or tackler from initiating contact against an opponent with the top or crown of the helmet, is that they are seldom enforced. But in the 2018 preseason the new rule was immediately enforced and in the first half of the preseason the penalty was called 51 times, an average of 1.5 times per game. So far 2 weeks in to the 2018 regular season players have suffered 7 concussions that placed players on the injured reserve which means they are unable to play and 13 concussions that have made players questionable for play in Week 3. That means that in the 2018 season, based on the first 2 weeks there are supposed to be around 160 concussions. Obviously this isn’t realistic because 2 weeks is too small of a sample, if Week 8 had just ended, it would be easier to project the concussions for the 17 Week season. In short we don’t know how the new rule changes are going to affect the concussions numbers this season.
The exposure of the effects of head injuries were displayed in Aaron Hernandez’s case and all the information released on head trauma and CTE, have led parents across the country to be hesitant to let their children play football. Because teenagers aren’t as old and as strong as NFL players, head injuries at that age are not uncommon, not just in football, but something like getting hit in the head with a ball. In City and Country people have had concussions while playing dodgeball, and a something as harmless as a dodgeball hitting someone in the head has left them with a serious concussion. The fact that teenagers can get concussions easier than NFL players, and the information that parents have obtained about the serious long term damage concussions cause shows the importance that awareness of a certain issue can have on people across a whole country, as the numbers of players in youth football leagues are declining.