Opinion: The NFL Is Not Causing the Concussion Epidemic
"Epidemic" may be too strong a word, but concussions are the hot topic in sports, especially football. Recently at Super Bowl XLVII, commissioner Roger Gooddell was grilled about player safety and what the NFL is doing to protect its players. However, the NFL is not the problem. Here's why. (Check out STACK's Concussion Awareness Series.)
Not All Concussions Occur in Football
In combat sports such as UFC, a knockout is a sudden traumatic loss of consciousness caused by a physical blow. A single powerful blow to the head (particularly the jawline and temple) can produce a cerebral concussion and cause a sudden, dramatic KO. So, essentially, in this sport, concussions often determine the winners and losers.
Even soccer—a so-called "non-contact sport"—has serious concussion problems. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, roughly 13 percent of head injuries in soccer are caused by players simply heading the ball.
Concussions Aren't the Only Problem
Other sports injuries have caused serious lifelong problems, or even death. In fact, over 50 high school athletes have died since 1994 from heat-related causes alone.
J.R. Moehringer of ESPN The Magazine asked, "What kind of future can you project for a consumer product (speaking of football) if the main emotion it inspires in consumers is guilt?" But, does that question really define the future of football?
Guilt is not the first feeling I got after watching the Super Bowl, or even after watching Eric LeGrand's collision on the football field that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In fact after reading his book, Believe: My Faith and the Tackle That Change My Life, I was actually inspired by his spirit and attitude.
The Gridiron Mindset
There's a certain mindset that players have that will not be deterred, even when science tells them to alter how they approach the game. It can be summed up with these quotes from J.R. Moehringer's article, which is entitled Football is dead. Long live football.
- "There's no collection of physical specimens like a football team." "(Football is) compensation for what's missing in life." —Michael Oriard, a lineman with the Chiefs in the 1970s
- "People ask me all the time, 'How'd you choose football?' I tell them, I didn't choose football. It chose me." —Marcel Reece, Raiders fullback
- "As players, we shake them [concussions] off. Anyone who thinks NFL players are going to change how they play because of science doesn't get it." —Delanie Walker, 49ers tight end
The Scientist's Mindset
Of a recent Boston University study about the number of documented cases connecting football to chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a degenerative brain disorder—neurosurgeon Robert Cantu said, "The incidence of CTE is four times greater in NFL players than the population at large would lead you to expect. We believe that this is a dose-related phenomenon—not just to concussions but total brain trauma. So clearly there's a relation to how many hits you've taken, and that does correlate with how long you played." (Learn more about CTE.)
These phrases need to be eliminated from commentary about sporting events: "he had his bell rung," "above the neck injury," "shake it off" and "separate the man from the ball." Continuing to use such phrases weakens the argument that a concussion is a serious thing and that it has long-lasting effects.
A Solid Foundation: Prevention
There is no perfect prevention program for any injury. However, minimizing the damage caused by a contact sport like football is possible without completely eliminating the sport.
"Heads Up Football," operated by USA Football, teaches young kids the importance of keeping their heads up when tackling. When a player tackles by using his arms instead of simply launching into the ball carrier, the force generated is reduced, and in most cases the head of the tackling player is up in a safe position.
Properly fitted helmets and mouth guards are another step in preventing concussions. They aren't foolproof, but they can limit the amount of force transferred to the brain during a violent hit.
Finally, it's important to have athletic trainers on site for any school event. These professionals must be trained in on-field concussion diagnosis. They must build a rapport with the players that facilitates honest communication so a player doesn't power through a potential head injury.