Concussions threaten future of the NFL

Royal Purple Staff Opinion

Feb. 16, 2016

Last week, we celebrated Super Bowl 50 with the same ritualistic precision as any American holiday. Nachos were eaten,  and those tiny, little cocktail weenies were consumed as we watched grown men smash each other’s faces in on the gridiron. 

Those men are the pinnacle of athletic perfection, trained to run faster, jump higher and hit harder than any humans on the planet. With little surprise, a few of them sustained concussions during the competition, highlighting a very serious problem in the NFL today.

Understand, we’re not calling for the abolition of football at the Royal Purple, but we are calling for more action to be taken by the NFL to protect players.

Perhaps they could borrow a rule implemented by the NCAA in which players guilty of helmet-to-helmet hits are thrown out of the game. As we’ve learned from the NFL, fining multimillionaire players for dangerous hits does little to stop them.

The NFL could also invest in better equipment, such as sensors in helmets that measure the amount of force a player takes to the head to better diagnose concussions.

During the Super Bowl, Panthers receiver Philly Brown leaped through the air and secured a pass over two Denver defenders, but the back of his head smashed hard against the turf on his way down. He left the game with a concussion.

Broncos linebacker Shaquil Barrett also sustained a concussion-causing blow during the game. His was the result of taking a vicious blindside hit. 

Traditionally, we wouldn’t bat an eye at such injuries. “He got his bell rung,” a coach might say, casually brushing the brain-swelling hit aside. But that attitude has been changing since 2002, when a rare disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was found in the brain of former NFL legend Mike Webster.

CTE is a degenerative disease of the brain, generally found in athletes who have sustained repeated blows to the head. It causes dementia-like symptoms and can only be diagnosed after death, according to the CTE Center at Boston University.

Currently, researchers at BU have found the disease in 50 additional former NFL players, perhaps most notably legendary former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who died in July.

CTE is comprised of four stages, according to Neuropathologist Dr. Ann Mckee. She was one of the doctors responsible for analyzing and diagnosing Stabler’s brain. 

The early stages show few noticeable symptoms, as brown specs of protein begin to build up around the frontal lobe after repeated head injuries. The protein specs are called “tau.” They interfere with blood vessels and eventually reduce brain function by killing nerve cells.

In the latter stages of CTE, the tau specs expand on the brain, affecting the amygdala and hippocampus, which are responsible for emotion and memory. After the disease runs its course, the brain becomes severely deformed and can shrink by nearly half its size, causing confusion, anger and severe depression.

This “concussion crisis” (along with a nearly $1 billion damages settlement involving more than 4,500 players) has prompted the NFL to make 39 rule changes in an attempt to make the game safer. Kickoffs were moved up, receivers on intercepted passes are now considered defenseless players and concussion protocol has been improved – to name a few.

Despite the rule changes, 2015 saw a notable increase in reported player concussions. Throughout the season, 271 concussions were reported, an increase of 31.6 percent from 2014, according to figures released by the NFL.

These figures must be addressed and accounted for by the NFL. The league knows it endorses a dangerous sport, and it has a responsibility to protect its players.

The future of football depends on the NFL’s ability to reduce concussions and make the game safer. We don’t want to see the end of professional football, but if concussions aren’t curbed, it could become nothing more than a memory: America’s dangerous pastime.

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