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Using Their Heads

By Natan Haramati | Considering Another Side Essays

When Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys was seen screaming at his doctors during a football game this season, it marked a crucial moment in the NFL’s conflict with concussions. Witten was upset that his doctors would not allow him back onto the field after he seemed woozy from a big hit by a defender. This event showed the changing mentality of the league towards serious head injuries. Demaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association), stated that his number one priority is the safety of NFL players (Smith’s testimony). Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, believes, “we [NFL] have an obligation to these men who have contributed so much to our game” (Goodell’s testimony). These leaders understand the crisis of concussions in football and are working tirelessly to help decrease this detrimental health issue. Critics of the league’s handling of concussions must understand it is nearly impossible for the league to completely eradicate injuries since football is naturally a physical, hard-hitting sport. However, the NFL has responded well to this growing health issue through their hard work in research, education, recent rule changes, and treatment of concussions.

The NFL has committed a tremendous number of hours and money towards the medical research of concussions. The NFL has invested over $5 million in research for concussions alone (Goodell’s testimony). Moreover, they have collaborated with expert doctors and neurologist in order to fully understand the medical consequences of concussions in football and have identified key areas where they can work together in order to transform the game into a safer sport (Goodell’s testimony). The NFL first established an organization specifically for concussions in 1994, called the Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) (Tucker’s testimony). Through the years, this committee has been a wonderful success. This was evident when the Department of Defense (DoD) contacted the NFL and wanted to discuss the league’s medical protocol on head injuries, since the military experienced similar problems. The MTBI together with DoD experts held a conference in Washington and continue to collaborate and share research together (Goodell’s testimony). We can see from this that the league’s hard work in research has shown success since the United States military is intrigued with their findings and is gaining knowledge from the league’s research. The Committee’s success did not end here as they continued to work hard in order to find better results from their research.

The MTBI began to hire medical experts to conduct studies on the affect of concussions towards players’ health. In some of the medical studies, the league would provide researchers with actual game footage of concussions during the game (Tucker’s testimony). Through their research with test dummies, the researchers found that impact to the players’ side of helmet and facemask were the most common areas of concussions (Tucker’s testimony). Furthermore, they discovered that tackling in a head-down position (or “spear-heading”) resulted in a higher rate of head injury. As a result, manufacturers developed a safer helmet with more padding support on the sides of the helmet and lighter facemasks, in order to keep the players heads up while fatigued (Diehl). The league’s commitment to research is evident through its acknowledgment of health issues caused by football and its desire to continue in researching in order to find cures and solutions. Due to the league’s continued effort and support for research, new studies have paved the way to make the game safer and have educated players on the detrimental effects of concussions.

The education of the league’s medical staff, players, coaches, and team administrators has been a major priority for the NFL. The league has held numerous concussion safety conferences over the years (Tucker’s testimony). The reason for these conferences is to spread the education and research from scientist and doctors to everyone in the league. Additionally, Goodell instituted the Player Advisory Council, comprised of active players, in order to discuss important matters pertaining to them. These players demanded discipline for players who cause concussions with their violent helmet-to-helmet hits and wanted information relating to concussions. Therefore, the league sent out updated information to all players and their wives on concussions in order to educate them (Goodell’s testimony). The league did not stop there as they continued to constantly remind the players about the devastating effects of concussions.

The league continued their education campaign by hanging concussion posters in every team’s locker room. These posters alerted players of the serious health effects of concussions including dementia and depression. It warns players that repeated concussions “can change your life and your family’s life forever” (Schwarz). These new posters are a drastic change from the 2007 pamphlets that told athletes that there wasn’t concrete medical research that shows any long-term health defects as a result of concussions. They list common symptoms, warn players not to ignore these symptoms, and explain specifically what a player should do when they sustain a concussion. The NFL recognizes that it is under an immense microscope regarding concussions and, therefore, tells players that other athletes are watching and shows pictures of youth football players in these posters (Schwarz). Also, the NFL and NFLPA have given over $150 Million to the NFL Youth Football Fund with majority of that money going towards the safety and educational programs. The league also teamed with the Center for Disease Control to prepare and distribute CDC educational materials about treatment of concussions for athletes, parents, and coaches (Goodell’s testimony). The NFL has used their insightful research in order to educate their own players and football players of all ages. Moreover, in addition to their research and education, the league has changed their own rules in order to protect their athletes.

The NFL has recently modified its rules in order to maximize the safety of their players. Many opponents (including current NFL players and the Player Advisory Council) criticized the NFL’s policy of fining players for hard hits. They believe this policy did not solve anything. The NFL therefore strengthened this policy as recently as a month ago. In October of 2010, Goodell issued a memo to all NFL teams explaining that players would be suspended or ejected from games for illegal hits to the neck and head. The NFL sent videos of what hits are deemed legal and which are deemed illegal. In the memo Goodell writes that football is a physical sport with hard contact, “but that carries with it an obligation to do all that we can to protect all players” (“Goodell issues”). Additionally, the NFL requires players to fully buckle their chinstraps, which prevents head injuries (Goodell’s testimony). The league has also instituted safer helmets as mentioned earlier. The league understands that football is a physical sport, but they believe they can control the head injuries with strict regulation of their rules and extremely conservative treatment of concussions.

The NFL has drastically altered how they treat concussions in football by changing the rules for when a player can return to the field after suffering a concussion. This new policy, instituted in 2009, expands the list of symptoms that forbid a player from returning to field for a game or practice. The symptoms include signs of confusion, gap in memory, abnormal neurological examination (dizziness, vertigo, loss of balance), new or persistent headache, and loss of consciousness. The former policy excluded athletes from returning to the field only if they lost consciousness after sustaining a concussion. In this policy, a player may not return to the field until he is considered asymptomatic (at rest and exertion), has a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and has been considered healthy enough to return to field by both team doctor and independent neurological consultant (Neale). Additionally, players must go through baseline testing. In this system, a player is tested when healthy (before the season) and after a head injury. A player can return to the field only when he is considered “before season” form (Diehl). The new concussion protocols are very strict and thorough since these injuries are very serious. These latest changes demonstrate the NFL’s commitment to protect their players from long-term health problems.

Another addition to this policy is that each NFL team must have an independent neurologist that is approved by the league (Neale). The reason for this policy is to eradicate the competitive and financial pressure that team doctors exhibit when determining when players can return from injuries. Goodell believes these numerous and major changes have already provided positive results. Over the past six seasons, the time between the injury and a player returning to the field has increased and the number of players kept off the field for an extended period of time has doubled (Goodell’s testimony). Not only has the NFL implemented an array of rule changes for concussions, they have also already seen the immediate success of these changes.

The NFL instituted more policies in order to further maximize the safety of their athletes and have been recognized for their hard work. Goodell believes that medical issues must always take priority over competitive concerns and that safety always comes first. Therefore the league established the “whistleblower system” as an opportunity for players to speak out if they (or their teammates) feel pressured to return to the field before they are fully healed from a head injury (Diehl). This policy displays the league’s concern and care for their player’s health and well-being. The strong effort by the league to protect their players has already received tremendous praise. Agent Leigh Steinberg, who has also been at the concussion forefront for more than 30 years, believes “the last three years we have had more advances in awareness and treatment than in our entire history” (George). Steinberg went as far as saying that Goodell’s recent actions are “a revolutionary breakthrough” and compared it to, “when the Berlin Wall fell. And for it, Roger Goodell deserves a place as a historical pioneer in modern concussion enlightenment” (George). Steinberg’s praise exemplifies how much the NFL has done in order to maximize the safety of their athletes.

With the NFL’s recent changes to their policies and treatment of concussions, they have altered the culture of the NFL into a safer sport. These changes are immediately being observed as evident from the Witten incident. Dr. Tony Strickland, director of Sports Concussion Institute, believes the NFL remains the primary symbol for sports concussions and has the opportunity to set the standard for concussion treatment (George). Through the league’s continued hard work, the league has accomplished just that.



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