What The NFL Still Gets Wrong About Concussions
Posted at Forbes.com 5/22/2013
Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, is floating the idea of a longer season even as he stresses the need for player safety.
Roger Goodell has 18 games on the brain.
Speaking at the NFL’s spring meeting on Tuesday, the commissioner continued to float the idea of expanding the league’s regular season by two games, in hopes of capturing more revenue and broadening the sport’s footprint…even as he also talked up the NFL’s commitment to player wellness.
But here’s another number worth remembering: 240.
That’s how many concussions were disclosed by NFL players and teams last season, according to the @NFLConcussions Twitter feed. (The actual number of mild brain injuries among NFL players is undoubtedly higher.) And the balance of those concussions were in the second half of the season, as the accumulation of subconcussive hits to the head likely contributed to more total concussions.
Where the league’s improved
Goodell’s posturing shows the Janus-like nature of his role: As the head of a $9.5 billion business, he’s charged with seeking out growth opportunities for the league. And adding two more regular season games could boost NFL revenue by $500 million per year.
But as the de facto spokesperson of America’s most popular sport, Goodell has to continue espousing the NFL’s commitment to player safety, especially given the industry-shaking lawsuit beginning to move through the courts.
Give Goodell credit where it’s due, experts say. Concussions may always be an issue in a sport predicated on large men flying at each other at full speed. (Especially as football players continue to evolve, with athletic specimens like Haloti Ngata doling out hits that carry the force of a ton of bricks—literally.)
Yet after decades of denying a link between head and brain injuries, the NFL’s gotten much better at concussion safety in the past few years. Changing the kickoff rules. Encouraging officials to flag more illegal hits. Better observation and reporting.
There’s more to come, too. Starting this fall, the NFL will require players to wear knee and thigh pads to reduce knee-to-head injuries, and will station independent neurologists on the sidelines of games.
The league also recently announced a major new initiative with ramifications that go well beyond football—a $50 million-plus partnership with GE to improve imaging technology for concussions.
Where it needs to get better
But the NFL can still go further.
Here are three remaining problems—and possible solutions—with the league’s concussion care and player safety.
Problem #1: It’s unclear just how many brain injuries there actually are.
Across the past three seasons, the Oakland Raiders reported 32 player concussions, based on data collected by The Concussion Blog.
The Houston Texans have reported a total of three.
Is something wrong in Oakland? No, experts argue—there’s something right. The Raiders have been much more proactive about tracking and reporting brain injuries, and sitting players as their injuries are identified.
Solution: Standardize terminology, standardize injury response.
One challenge is that teams use different terms to describe the same injury; for example, PBS Frontline notes that a player can be listed as suffering from a generic “head” injury when he’s actually wrestling with a concussion.
According to Richard Ellenbogen, who chairs the NFL’s Head, Neck & Spine Committee, teams should be using consistent terminology, which will allow for better tracking.
And in theory, that should help with enforcement too–especially given some teams’ tendency to flout the protocol around benching players with brain injuries, in part by calling their injuries something that isn’t a “concussion.”
Problem #2: Scared for their jobs, players will hide symptoms and play through head injuries.
January’s Super Bowl provided high-profile evidence of why players don’t disclose their symptoms. San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith was enjoying the best season of his career—then lost his job to Colin Kaepernick in November after self-reporting a concussion. (Kaepernick subsequently dazzled as a starting quarterback, muting what could’ve been a controversial debate.) It’s the wrong kind of object lesson; several weeks later, quarterback Greg McElroy waited days to tell the New York Jets he was experiencing his own symptoms before getting benched.
Solution: Create protections for concussed players.
“This one is simple in my mind,” says Dustin Fink of The Concussion Blog. “If a player gets a concussion, make it a 10-day minimum injury, so [he] will miss at least a week; if a player received his concussion due to an illegal hit … then the offender should be suspended one week.”
Given the effect on teams’ rosters, Fink also thinks that the league should add new flexibility. “The NFL should have a concussion designation for the 53-man roster and impose four extra slots for concussed players that can be placed there and put back on the roster,” Fink told me. “The minimum stay [could be] two weeks—and any team found ‘gaming’ this rule will forfeit their 1st round draft pick.”
Problem #3: Concussions pile up across the season, as subconcussive blows begin to take their toll.
Solution: Don’t make the season longer—shorten it, if anything, and add more byes for rest.
Having already reviewed the problems of a longer season, let’s jump to this possible fix…which is destined to be unpopular.
Neither the league nor its players want to give back any revenue by sacrificing games, and most fans would suggest that reviving the NFL’s classic 14-game season feels like returning to a less exciting era for the sport.
However, the safety protections here would be manifold: Not just less in-game contact, but more time for players to heal during the season, too.
And if Goodell’s concerned about profits, keep in mind that a shorter regular season could actually set the NFL up for another round of playoff games–which carry huge margin for the league.