Maddie Tobias Mr. Cahee Honors English 1131 January 2018Should the NFL Increase the Strictness of Concussion Protocols? On September 24, 2002, four-time Super Bowl winner and NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster died of a heart attack at fifty years old. For him, however, a problematic heart condition was the least of his worries.
After retiring from a long and successful career of football, Webster’s mental health rapidly declined. Webster began to have violent mood swings which led to his wife filing for a divorce. He then lived alone in his truck under a bridge in Pittsburgh, and blew all of his money on poor investments. Webster would Super Glue his loose teeth back into his gums and would taser his own stomach to knock himself unconscious in order to get a few hours of sleep. These behaviors are obviously abnormal, and were caused by the numerous blunt force head trauma injuries that Webster obtained over the course of his football career.
After an autopsy and extensive studies, Webster became the first person diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain condition called CTE (Laskas).Webster, as well as many other football players, suffered from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease apparently caused by repeated traumatic brain injury” (Clemmit). When Webster was playing in the NFL, concussion protocol did not exist. NFL concussion protocol encompasses the overall prevention, diagnosis and treatment of concussions. Currently, NFL concussion protocol requires players who exhibit concussion-like symptoms to be evaluated by a medical professional and rest until cleared to play again (VanTryon).
Even today, it is commonly argued that current concussion protocol needs refinements in order to better protect players. While it may seem to some that concussion protocol will diminish essential qualities of professional American football, it is actually true that a more strictly enforced concussion protocol should be implemented to increase the safety of players and enable the longevity of the game. Football is the most popular sport in America and has been for generations (Rovell). While many others prefer watching because of strategy or team affiliations, the casual football fan is pulled in by the hard hits and crushing tackles that are characteristic of American football. Many of these hard hits leave players stunned or incapacitated, leading them to eventually be helped off of the field amidst a crowd of cheering spectators. Opponents of increasing the strictness of concussion protocols say that there will be fewer spectators of these overly safe games, and football will gradually fade from the sports world.
Certainly, an increase in the strictness of concussion prevention, including stricter head-to-head collision rules, would decrease the amount of big hits that take place. The casual football fan could be turned off by the lack of hard impacts, and thus, opponents reason, the number of football watchers would decrease. Opponents also believe that increasing concussion protocol strictness undermines the abilities of able-bodied football players. As stated by President Trump, “See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions – ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season'” (Guarino). In other words, opponents believe that ‘softer’ concussion protocols are unnecessary for players of a sport based off of bodily contact. Ultimately, it is true that football players choose to play a dangerous sport and must face the consequences of their decisions. Because of their high-risk occupation, football players have a substantial average salary and treatment costs associated with football-related injuries are completely free of charge (Lee).
It also must be taken into consideration that current concussion protocol is superior to previous treatment plans and “concussion protocols have worked overwhelmingly in a positive matter” (Mortensen), meaning that another increase in concussion protocol strictness may not benefit the players more than it already has. While the opposing sides of the concussion protocol argument have little common ground, certainly both parties wish for the safety of football players and the longevity of the sport. Nevertheless, current concussion protocol is not capable of helping football players due to the fact that it is not strongly enforced. Prevention methods, such as deterring head-to-head collisions through penalty calling, are frequently ignored by referees and other officials (Yuscavage). One of the main causes of head trauma is head-to-head collisions during tackles (Clemmitt).
In a study by the National Institutes of Health, it was discovered that “some players receive 1,400 to 1,500 hits to the head…in a season – on average about six per practice and fourteen per game” (Sauser). Current protocol was created in order to “prevent defenseless players from taking shots above their shoulders” (“New NFL Rules Designed to Limit Head Injuries”).
However, the number of head-to-head collisions that take place without being called should be a source of worry for fans and players alike. While on-field concussions may occur at any point in the game, illegal head-to-head contact increases a player’s chance of injury. Quarterback Cam Newton suffered four direct helmet-to-helmet collisions in a single game, with only one of those collisions being flagged as a penalty (Yuscavage). In order for the prevention aspect of the NFL concussion protocol to be effective, the judging of illegal tackling forms should be more strictly enforced. This regulation would dissuade players from making certain types of tackles in the future and would prevent serious head trauma caused by head-to-head contact from occuring.
While it may seem that this decrease in contact will also lead to a decrease in the total interest of football, this rule is not capable of causing the sport to fade. Football is a valuable part of the American economy and makes an average revenue of $4 billion a year of television contracts alone, not including sponsorships or other deals (Rosenberg). Simply decreasing the number of head-to-head collisions will not be able to destroy the popularity and value of the NFL, and will ultimately serve to make the sport safer and prevent illnesses like CTE from occuring in the future. Even more important, current concussion protocol is easily being thwarted by the players themselves. Howard Fendrich of Opposing Viewpoints explains this point: In a series of interviews about head injuries with the Associated Press over the last two weeks, 23 of 44 NFL players—slightly more than half—said they would try to conceal a possible concussion rather than pull themselves out of a game.
Some acknowledged they already have. Players also said they should be better protected from their own instincts: More than two-thirds of the group the AP talked to wants independent neurologists on sidelines during games. (Fendrich)This staggering statistic shows more than NFL players’ determination to continue playing through an injury; it shows the ease with which the players can pass concussion protocol tests. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin claimed that “he didn’t try to cheat the protocol but that he could have if he had wanted to, and that the ability to cheat is “relatively known around the league'” (Bien).
Tests for concussions are the same for each player’s medical exam, including repeating the same set of questions to determine if a concussion is present. “Suffering one severe TBI Traumatic brain injury, several mild ones or, for some people, even a single mild or moderate TBI raises the risk of permanent brain damage” (Clemmitt). Playing through concussions or playing too soon after concussions is a dangerous gamble for football players.
After sustaining more hits to the head after already having a brain trauma, players face a greater chance of contracting a TBI (Clemmitt). This increased risk cannot be taken lightly; thus, stricter regulations are needed for concussion testing. New tests, as well as unaffiliated doctors, should be used to make it harder for players to be wrongly cleared. All of these increased regulations should create a safer environment for diagnosed players and would require them to go through correct procedures for recovery. Concussion protocols, implemented in 2009, were put into place after mounting evidence that CTE and other mental illnesses are caused by head trauma, and the link between a NFL career and late-onset CTE became clear.
This evidence was born from the autopsy of Mike Webster, the first person to be diagnosed with CTE. However, current concussion protocol still needs significant refinements in order to create a safer environment for players in order to prevent diseases like CTE from occuring in the future. Opponents of concussion protocols believe that a strict concussion protocol will take away the excitement of football, as well as make the game a more boring counterpart of the American tradition. Along with this, opponents believe that football players are capable of making their own decisions about playing football and facing the consequences of their choices. However, a stricter concussion protocol is necessary because the lack of calling head-to-head hits during games results in an increased possibility of brain trauma and CTE, and players are unable to make sound decisions in those conditions. Concussion protocol also needs more foolproof testing methods to prevent players from cheating on concussion tests and playing while concussed.
Therefore, increasing the strictness and effectiveness of current NFL concussion protocol is essential for the continuation of American football and the safety of it’s players.