Concussions are a problem that has plagued the National Football League (NFL) for years but have mostly gone unnoticed by the public eye up until recently. The NFL has always neglected to accept the fact that the game that Americans love so much is taking such a toll on the heads of the players.
One contributing factor to the increasing number of concussions is the size of the players. According to Chase Stuart, a contributor for Pro-Football Reference, the average weight of offensive and defensive lineman was around 250 pounds in the 1970s while the weight of an offensive lineman today averages well over 300 pounds. There have also been slight increases at the other positions such as linebacker, running back, and quarterback. One would assume that since players are getting larger that would in turn make them slower. Wrong. Players now are faster and stronger than they have ever been before. These two factors play an essential role in concussions. The amount of force caused by a collision is calculated by multiplying mass by acceleration. Football players have increased in size while traveling at faster speeds, thus contributing to the possibility for a greater number of concussions being suffered on a weekly basis. According to Jason M. Breslow, there were 9.2 concussions suffered on a weekly basis during the 2012 NFL season, but this number is down from previous years. While concussions have directly contributed to players unexpectedly retiring from the NFL because of medical issues resulting from playing the game, the NFL has responded in recent years by instituting policy and rule changes in an effort to decrease the number of concussions.
The NFL’s neglect toward concussions took a turn toward improvement in the spring of 2007. Roger Goodell, the new rookie commissioner had just taken over his new role in the NFL front office with a stack of problems that had just been dropped in his lap by Paul Taglibue, the previous commissioner. Most notably, Goodell had to take care of the glaring problem that concussions were presenting. According to Linda Carroll and David Rosner, to become informed about the issue, Goodell scheduled a meeting that would include health and training representatives from all thirty-two teams. Also included in this informational summit were doctors not affiliated with the NFL in any way who could bring their perspective to the table as well. One of the latter was a neurosurgeon, Dr. Julian Bales, who had been previously employed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His presentation proved the NFL’s stance on concussions, most notably on chronic brain damage, misguided, incomplete, and frankly, dead wrong (245-46). According to two studies he authored and conducted with Kevin Guskiewicz, a concussion expert for the University of North Carolina, evidence showed the holes in the NFL’s argument that there is no link between the game of football and chronic brain damage:
One [study] showed that retirees with at least three concussions were three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with no history of head injury; the other showed that retirees with at least three concussions were three times more likely to suffer from significant memory problems and five times more likely to be diagnosed with the pre-Alzheimer’s condition mild cognitive impairment. (Carroll and Rosner 246)
The NFL, of course, paid no attention to these claims and the NFL’s chairman for the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, Dr. Ira Casson found himself in a few back and forth heated altercations with Dr. Bales. A few months prior Dr. Casson had adamantly denied several questions in interviews about concussions and their long-term effects on NFL players. To prove that he wasn’t just going to sit back and do nothing about this problem, Commissioner Goodell announced new standards that the NFL would adhere to from there on out:
- Instituted neuropsychological baseline testing for all players before each season (adopted model from National Hockey league who has been using it for over a decade
- Stipulated that players who were knocked unconscious could no longer be returned to action the same day.
- Mandated that return-to-action decisions be based on health rather than being based on “wanting to win” and “what is best for the team”. Decisions also needed to only be made only by team medical personnel without pressure from external influences.
- Instituted a “whistleblower” hotline enabling anyone (player, coach, or anyone else) to anonymously call and report an infraction of any of the above rules by any given team. (Carroll and Rosner248)
This was a big deal in the sports media and made a big statement for the NFL, and more importantly, for Roger Goodell. Though he was early in his term as commissioner, he chose to be proactive about the problem and did not allow the problem to become more complicated, as it had in years past. As a result of his findings, he wanted to make a change, and this was the first step of many to do so.
The second step stemmed from an incident that took place about two and a half years later in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Roger Goodell, in defense of his NFL doctors, stood in front of a crowd of people and fielded and deflected numerous questions with typically the same answer that he had used to dismiss any link between the game and brain trauma, impairment, and dementia (Carroll and Rosner 252). He faced several questions from numerous people in well-regarded professions such as doctors and lawmakers. Representative Linda Sanchez compared the NFL to tobacco companies and their handling of the effects of cigarettes during the session. Additionally, Representative Maxine Waters made an eye-opening comment to Roger Goodell in which she told him, “I think you’re an eight-billion-dollar organization that has not taken seriously your responsibility to the players. I know you do everything you possibly can to hold on to those profits but I think the responsibility of this Congress is to take a look at the antitrust exemption you have and take it away” (qtd. in Carroll and Rosner 252-53). This would result in a monumental loss of revenue for the NFL. The thought of losing billions of dollars in revenue would cripple the league on many levels. According to John Bresnahan, this antitrust exemption is what allows the NFL to negotiate its very profitable TV deals with various broadcast networks. This is something that no other sport can do, so of course, the league, and more importantly Roger Goodell, seriously noted Waters’ comment.
After this most recent thrashing, Commissioner Goodell had to go on the offensive again, this time instituting in 2009 more comprehensive changes than he made in 2007. He was no longer denying, denying, denying. This time Goodell insisted, “We [the NFL] are changing the game for the better” (qtd. in Carroll and Rosner 253). In late November of 2009, Goodell announced his second series of changes that served to better protect the NFL players while setting the standard for football across America, no matter the age group or organization. “The NFL would now require that outside neurologists and neurosurgeons independently clear concussed players, taking return-to-pay decisions out of the sole control of team physicians who were vulnerable to conflict-of-interest pressures from their employers. . . . the NFL would now require players with any significant sign of concussion to be removed from a game or practice and be barred from returning same day” (Carroll and Rosner 254). This was a big step toward the NFL progressing toward correcting a wrong for which it had been scrutinized over the past ten years. No longer would players be able to return to the game, as they previously had been, if they experience any concussion-like symptoms at all. Gone are the days of going back into practice once the dizziness or headaches subsides. If these rules are enforced, now is the time of a concussion aware league.
Not only has Roger Goodell established numerous policy changes, but also he has instituted a multitude of rule changes. Wanting to address one of the most violent plays during the game, Commissioner Goodell first focused his efforts on making the highly concussion-prone kickoff a safer facet of the game. The initial change came in 2009 when Goodell made an announcement that prohibited the return team from using the wedge formation during kickoffs. The second followed in March of 2011, and after the labor talks had finished, two new rules had been finalized. Because the kickoff is such a high impact play that has players going full speed from a running start and crashing into one another, no longer would players from the kicking team get an unlimited running start before the ball was kicked off; that distance had been lessened to five yards. Additionally, the ball is to be kicked from the thirty-five yard line instead of the thirty. The latter rule probably has more of a direct effect on lessening concussions as the players never usually had more than a ten-yard running start under the “unlimited distance” rule. The extra five yards from which the ball was kicked increased the number of touchbacks, which lessened the number of kickoff returns resulting in fewer high impact plays. According to Nate Jackson’s article “The NFL’s Concussion Culture” however, he believes this rule change was only instituted to allow the NFL to speak favorably about its intentions through various mass media outlets, similarly to what the league did in 2009 when they announced that the “wedge formation” would be banned on kickoffs (22).
The NFL definitely reached its goal of a 30 percent touchback rate on kickoffs. According to Team Rankings, since the inception of the rule, the touchback rate has been 43.6 percent and 43.7 percent respectively in 2011 and 2012 (NFL). This rule has yielded far better results than the league could have imagined. More evidence shows that the number of concussions being suffered on kickoffs has been reduced by 43 percent since the league has implemented this change in 2011 (Breslow). The rule change can easily be seen as a success, though some players and coaches think it drastically devalues special teams, an important phase of the game.
The most recent collective bargaining agreement took the injury issue a step further. This time the fight was directed toward the practice field. It was established that teams could no longer hold two-a day practices during training camp, lessening the wear and tear on the player’s bodies. Also, teams would be able to hold only one full contact practice and one walkthrough per day. Furthermore, teams could have only fourteen full contact practices during the regular season. One full contact practice would be allowed per week in weeks 1-11, while only three full contact practices would be allowed in the final six weeks, weeks 12-17 (Clemmitt). Bucky Brooks, an analyst for NFL.com, argues that even though the league is taking these safety precautions, other parts of the game will inherently suffer because of these new restrictions. Without the increased number of repetitions at practice, Bucky predicts that tackling, the running game and the passing game will suffer the most. These rule modifications are successively building a safer league one step at a time. There will undoubtedly be more changes to come that teams will have to adjust to as the NFL institutes more rules in efforts to keep its players safe.
All of these changes have obviously been emplaced for good reason. One good reason is that retired professional football players are suffering from the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It is being discovered that not only do concussions inflict pain while causing unwanted side effects such as dizziness and nausea, but also they cause temporary memory loss, headaches and in the most severe cases, CTE. CTE normally develops in individuals who have been exposed to heavy blows to the head. Thought only to be a boxing related injury, studies now show that the brains of former NFL players have the same characteristics of this deadly brain disease. The one drawback in diagnosing the disease is that it normally can only be accomplished once the individual is deceased and his brain has been subjected to dyes and other compounds that detail the amount of the malicious protein, tau, found throughout the brain’s tissue. Additionally, in most cases, the symptoms associated with CTE may not even show up for at least twenty years after the individual has retired from the NFL (Carroll and Rosner 212-44). Depression, paranoia, aggression and impaired judgment are just a few of the deadly side effects from CTE that have led to the deaths of former NFL players, Mike Webster, the vaunting offensive lineman who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s; Terry Long, who played alongside Webster; and Junior Seau, who had recently committed suicide in 2012. These are just a few of the many who have suffered from CTE, and more potential cases are being discovered monthly through research.
It is evident that the NFL is in the midst of a makeover. The league has instated several policy and rule changes to combat concussions and its effects. However, the challenge lies in where the NFL goes from here. There will undoubtedly be more rule and policy changes to be made, but what the NFL and Roger Goodell have to be mindful of is keeping the integrity of the game intact. Commissioner Goodell has already briefly broached the possibility of getting rid of kickoffs all together. This would be a very controversial and bold move as the kickoff, and special teams, is an integral part of any football game. It is also rumored that independent neurologists will be on the sidelines next year to help with the diagnosing concussions. This would be an improvement from team hired doctors as it would remove any bias from of the decision making process. In addition to the rule and policy changes, the NFL has contributed $130 million just this year alone in partnering with Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health to further research on traumatic brain injuries, CTE, and the effects of concussions on former players (Breslow). Through these steps, the league continues to make concerted efforts to fix this neglected problem that has compounded exponentially with the evolution of the game. Hopefully any future changes the NFL decides to make will keep the integrity of professional football, which Americans love so much, intact.
Breslow, Jason M. NFL Concussions: The 2013 Season in Review. PBS, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
Bresnahan, John. “Conyers seeks to get rid of NFL’s antitrust exemption” Politico.com. Politico, 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 9 Mar 2013.
Brooks, Bucky. “How Practice Changes Could Negatively Impact NFL Games.” NFL.com. National Football League, 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 9 Mar. 2013.
Carroll, Linda, and David Rosner. The Concussion Crisis. New York: Simon, 2011. Print.
Clemmitt, Marcia. “Traumatic Brain Injury.” 22:20 (2012): 477-500. CQ Researcher. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.
Jackson, Nate. “The NFL’s Concussion Culture.” Nation 293.7/8 (2011): 22-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Feb. 2013.
“NFL Team Kickoff Touchback Percentage.” Teamrankings.com Team Rankings, Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
Stuart, Chase. How Much Bigger are Players Now? n.p., 27 Feb. 2008 Web. 5 Mar. 2013.