Controversy threatens NFL’s concussion protocol

The+image+portrays+the+effects+that+CTE+has+on+the+brain+and+compares+it+to+a+normal+brain%2C+showing+the+damage+done+to+NFL+players.+%28Image+courtesy+of+Boston+University%29
The image portrays the effects that CTE has on the brain and compares it to a normal brain, showing the damage done to NFL players. (Image courtesy of Boston University)

The image portrays the effects that CTE has on the brain and compares it to a normal brain, showing the damage done to NFL players. (Image courtesy of Boston University)

The image portrays the effects that CTE has on the brain and compares it to a normal brain, showing the damage done to NFL players. (Image courtesy of Boston University)

Dylan Riggs, Sports Editor

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The NFL has a problem. This problem affects players for their rest of their lives, which are  are shortened because of it. The problem is they can’t stop players from getting Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). There are many reasons this disease develops in athletes. The constant bashing of helmets and pads and repeated blows to the head is the likely cause of CTE for football players. According to researchers at Boston University, athletes who suffer repetitive brain trauma tend to have CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death and a thorough study of the deceased’s brain. Current NFL players are repeatedly returning to games even after they’ve taken potentially concussive hits. Playing with a concussion puts  one at even greater risk and the brain trauma multiplies further and further. Many former NFL players have died with CTE, namely Hall of Fame players such as Junior Seau (died at 43), Ken Stabler (69), Frank Gifford (84), and John Mackey (69). Junior Seau is notable because he commited suicide as a possible way to cope with the pain he suffered due to CTE. Another notable CTE victim was the infamous Aaron Hernandez (27), who while on trial for multiple murders, committed suicide in his cell. Each athlete dealt with mental health issues after repeated injuries to their brain during their playing career.

A study from Boston University revealed tragic new information about CTE. All but one of 111 studied brains of deceased NFL players had CTE. The study also showed that 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of high school football players were diagnosed with it.. This shows how much of an impact brain trauma causes to players of all ages.

All of this newfound information and fear of causing even more damage has led to the NFL cracking down on its rules and trying to make the game safer. The problem with this is that they only make it safer for the offensive player, namely a defenseless wide receiver stretching to get the ball, or a running back running through tacklers.

Penalty flags are thrown for hits to the head with a helmet or shoulder pad or even just a hit to a player who can’t defend himself, no matter where the hit is on the ball carrier’s body. Defenders can’t hit the quarterback low, near the knees, or a penalty flag is thrown. This causes the so called “sweet spot” for defenders to tackle offensive players in to be from thighs to shoulders, as well as occasionally knee or below if the ball carrier is not the quarterback.

With offensive players shifting their bodies trying to get lower than the defender or juking out of the defender’s way, this zone can change in a fraction of a second. All this movement occurs while a defender is moving at full speed and he has to be able to react quickly enough to shift his trajectory in order to hit the ball carrier in the legal zone. That it is highly difficult for defenders to do and it has caused some players to be fed up with the new rules. In a recent game, Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker Ryan Shazier wasn’t able to alter his trajectory well enough and was carried off on a stretcher and was in the hospital for weeks after receiving spinal cord surgery and having no feelings in his legs for some time. His teammate, Safety Mike Mitchell, said to Bleacher Report, “If you have to get paralyzed to try to protect an offensive player, I’m going to knock the offensive player off every time because I’m not going to do it.”

Defensive players feel trapped in a game where the wrong move could lead them to be suspended, fined, or severely injured. Ten years ago, that was just good old fashioned football.

Even with all the concern over player safety, it seems the NFL lacks the medical staff to truly diagnose the health of players during games.Teams now have a Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant, a physician not associated with any team who watches the game on the sidelines for potential concussion causing plays. Teams also have trainers sitting in booths that review game film for potential concussions and have the power to call medical timeouts if they believe a player needs to receive medical attention.

If a player shows signs of having a concussion, it is mandatory that they are removed from the game, so the team doctor can evaluate them. If diagnosed with a concussion, that player is not allowed to return to the game that day and must return to the locker room for further evaluation. If a team fails to follow the concussion protocol and sends a concussed player onto the field or doesn’t follow the procedure correctly, it can be fined large sums of money or potentially lose draft picks.

However, this season it seems as though teams haven’t followed this protocol too closely, as some trainers have barely batted an eye to potential injuries. On Nov. 9, Seattle Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson was sent off the field to be evaluated by the referee after an illegal hit by a defender to his chin. Wilson jogged to the medical tent to be evaluated and stepped in and went right out just a few seconds later, a time period that seems impossible to truly evaluate a concussion. Wilson ran right back onto the field, only missing a single play. A few plays later, once his team was on defense, Wilson went back into the tent to be “re-evaluated” and was said to have passed all the tests. It turned out to be a jaw injury. Nonetheless, the treatment of Wilson’s potential head injury was alarming, as it seemed the team only cared about keeping their star player on the field and not his safety. The Seahawks were fined $100,000 for their failure to comply with the protocol.

Once the playoffs begin, the stakes are raised and teams feel the need to keep their best players in the game as much as possible. During one of the NFC Wild Card games, Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton received a brutal hit from the defensive player. Newton staggered off the field before collapsing and pointing to his face as trainers rushed to his attention. Newton was quickly evaluated and cleared from having a concussion, returning to the field on the team’s next offensive possession. All this happened during the fourth quarter of a closely contested game where a loss meant the end of the season. Newton stated after the game that he had received an eye injury, a statement highly doubted as an eye injury should never make a player collapse to their knees on the field. The Panthers admit that Newton exaggerated his injury in order to allow his backup more time to warm up. The Panthers are being investigated by the NFL for their actions as a new rule states that a player with “gross motor instability or significant loss of balance” must be evaluated in the locker room. Newton seemed to have these symptoms while leaving the field and one can only wonder what truly was wrong with him.

These aren’t the only cases of potential averting of the concussion protocol by NFL teams. On Nov. 12, Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Jacoby Brissett took a hit to the head and went limp on the field before being helped up. Brissett was cleared to return to the game but somehow after the game he developed his concussion symptoms that weren’t seen by a team doctor during the game.

On Dec. 10, Houston Texans Quarterback Tom Savage hit his head hard on the ground during a play. He then seemed to twitch on the ground in a seizure-like manner. Savage was removed from the field and cleared to return, taking the field again the next series. This incident caused the NFL to revise their concussion policy on Dec. 29. Players that show signs of a concussion now must go to the locker room to be evaluated and not return. Seizures and fencing responses to a hit automatically cause the player to be pulled from the game.

The NFL has been working for years to try to find a policy that can keep players safe, but the problem with it is that they don’t have enough control over the players being evaluated and they can’t take violence out of the game, or defense will no longer matter. There is a reason that teams score more points than in year’s past. Defenders simply have a harder time trying to make a legal tackle. In trying to follow these rules these defenders could hurt themselves much like Shazier. The NFL needs to find a way to keep defenders from being rendered helpless and fearing their next fine while also keeping teams from putting potentially concussed players back into the game.

The NFL can’t take violence out of football, but they can make the right precautions to make sure players aren’t hurt even worse than they already are. Playing the sport is a choice and with that choice comes the potential of CTE. Some players have retired early in their careers in fear of damaging their life, such as former San Francisco 49ers Linebacker Chris Borland, a former up-and-coming star at the position. The NFL needs to realize it isn’t the players causing the issues, it is the way they are being governed and forced to play in ways that don’t truly resemble the sport while television ratings are the driving factor to keep players in games. All in all, the system is not correct and more changes are necessary. Otherwise football as we know it may be a completely different game.

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