Career-ending head and neck injuries are well-documented such as the case of Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett. But what is the cumulative effect of milder head collisions over years of play in the NFL?
One of the most pressing issues plaguing the NFL is how the League handles concussions and other head injuries. A recent study showed that more than 40 percent of retired NFL players had signs of traumatic brain injury. Indeed, most of the controversies surrounding this issue have been associated with the lack of information provided to NFL players about the seriousness of these injuries. Keith McCants, a former NFL linebacker said in 2015: “We were paid to give concussions. If we knew that we were killing people, I would have never put on the jersey.”
The 2015 season saw that there were 271 concussions that were treated and diagnosed, which was an increase of 31% from the previous year. The problem is that classifying a concussion comes often at the discretion of coaches and players themselves.
Since coaches have the incentive to win games, they do not want to compromise their win-loss record by making players go through evaluations when players claim they feel fine. Additionally, teams have an incentive to provide entertainment for paying customers, so they play more entertaining styles of football. A study from the Orthopedic Journal of Sports medicine showed that there was a statistically significant relationship between a team’s style of play and the number of head injuries the team reported. So, as teams try harder to entertain their fans, players are put more at risk.
With more emphasis being put on this issue, the NFL has come up with a new protocol, including what is called “Play Smart. Play Safe initiative.” This protocol states that when a potential concussion is identified, a player should immediately be removed from the field and neurotrauma consultants will perform examinations on the players. Indeed, the NFL seemed serious about this, stating that it would fine teams and rescind draft picks if they failed to follow this concussion policy.
So, how effective has this policy been? More concussions are being diagnosed, and players are now more aware of the dangers surrounding concussions.
However, an issue remains: these big, heavy players are moving with high speed, and the force of hits can result in collisions that are not serious enough to trigger removal from the game as per the new concussion protocol. But over time, the damage from these collisions accumulates, even if no single hit is sufficient to cause brain damage. The toll of these smaller hits over time can result in problems like Alzheimer’s and depression.
To address this, the NFL could take an approach seen in soccer where any time there is a head injury, play is immediately stopped and the player is examined. So while the NFL’s first steps are promising in addressing player head injuries, the League may need to look to other sports that take any sort of head injury very seriously.