NFL Crackdown on Violent Hits Won’t Stop Football’s Concussion Problem

Lindsay Beyerstein

DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles is laid out by Dunta Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons on Oct.17. Both players were injured and had to be helped off the field.

On Wednes­day, the Nation­al Foot­ball League announced tough new penal­ties for vio­lent hits, like the bru­tal hel­met-to-hel­met hit that left the Eagles DeSean Jack­son lying on the field for sev­er­al min­utes. Play­ers who deliv­er ille­gal blows to the head and neck will face large fines and sus­pen­sions. The play­er who hit Jack­son will be fined $50,000, a huge sum by NFL standards.

All of a sud­den, the NFL wants to look tough on con­cus­sions. This is less a mat­ter of com­pas­sion and more an issue of self-preservation.

For years, the league denied there was any con­nec­tion between repeat­ed blows to the head and ear­ly-onset demen­tia. At this point, the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence is so over­whelm­ing that con­tin­u­ing to deny the obvi­ous could leave the league open to law­suits by play­ers who were deceived about the risks.

In late July, the league abrupt­ly acknowl­edged the facts on the ground and post­ed con­cus­sion warn­ing notices in play­ers’ lock­er­rooms, acknowl­edg­ing the link between repeat­ed con­cus­sions cog­ni­tive decline. The NFL’s lawyers prob­a­bly real­ized that, in the face of such over­whelm­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence, denial was a big­ger lia­bil­i­ty than acceptance. 

NFL foot­ball play­ers with a his­to­ry of con­cus­sions are at risk of an incur­able brain dis­ease called chron­ic trau­mat­ic encephalopa­thy (CTE). Repeat­ed brain bruis­es (aka con­cus­sions”) lit­er­al­ly scar the brain. Symp­toms include mem­o­ry loss, depres­sion, con­fu­sion, and fits of uncon­trol­lable rage. In most cas­es, the true toll of the CTE doesn’t become appar­ent for sev­er­al years after the play­er retires.

After for­mer Eagles defen­sive back Andre Waters died of a self-inflict­ed gun­shot wound in 2007 at the age of 44, a foren­sic pathol­o­gist found that his brain resem­bled that of an 85-year-old. The brain was shrunk­en and shot through with abnor­mal tau pro­tein, the bio­log­i­cal mark­er that sets trau­mat­ic encephalopa­thy apart from Alzheimer’s disease.

That year, the NFL and the Play­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion joint­ly found­ed the 88 Plan, which helps retired play­ers with demen­tia pay their med­ical bills. Many observers wor­ry that eli­gi­ble retirees aren’t ben­e­fit­ing because they are already to impaired to apply.

To date, neu­roanatomists have per­formed autop­sis­es on 13 for­mer pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball play­ers who died after exhibit­ing signs of degen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease, 12 of these play­ers were found to have suf­fered from CTE. Recent­ly, signs of ear­ly CTE were found in the brain of a col­lege play­er with a his­to­ry of con­cus­sions who com­mit­ted sui­cide dur­ing a bout of depression.

A sur­vey of 1000 ran­dom­ly select­ed retired NFL play­ers with a his­to­ry of con­cus­sions found that 6.1% of respon­dents said they’d had been diag­nosed with demen­tia, a rate five times high­er than for peo­ple the same age in the gen­er­al population.

The NFL’s crack­down on vio­lent hits prob­a­bly won’t do much to stem the epi­dem­ic of post-con­cus­sion demen­tia. That’s because the worst dam­age doesn’t nec­es­sary come from the most spec­tac­u­lar hits.

Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na installed accelerom­e­ters in the hel­mets of col­lege play­ers to mea­sure the g‑forces act­ing on their brains. As Mal­colm Glad­well explains, the sen­sors show that play­ers are reg­u­lar­ly sub­ject­ed to g‑forces strong enough to cause brain dam­age dur­ing practice:

When we think about foot­ball, we wor­ry about the dan­gers posed by the heat and the fury of com­pe­ti­tion. Yet the HITS data sug­gest that prac­tice — the rou­tine part of the sport — can be as dan­ger­ous as the games them­selves. We also tend to focus on the dra­mat­ic hel­met-to-hel­met hits that sig­nal an aggres­sive and reck­less style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what side­lined the U.N.C. play­er, the first time around, was an acci­den­tal and seem­ing­ly innocu­ous elbow, and none of the blows he suf­fered that day would have been flagged by a ref­er­ee as ille­gal. Most impor­tant, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the line­man on that first day in train­ing camp. He didn’t just suf­fer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thir­ty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his con­cus­sion, in oth­er words, was his cumu­la­tive exposure.

Bet­ter hel­mets prob­a­bly won’t solve the prob­lem, either. The hel­met cush­ions out­side of the head, but it doesn’t stop the brain from bash­ing against the cra­ni­um when the play­er stops suddenly.

The UNC con­cus­sion research sug­gests that return­ing to the game before a con­cus­sion is espe­cial­ly dan­ger­ous. Sus­tain­ing a sec­ond blow before recov­er­ing from the first is far more dam­ag­ing than either blow in iso­la­tion.
There’s not a lot the NFL can do about the physics of large guys crash­ing into each oth­er, or the fragili­ty of the human ner­vous sys­tem. How­ev­er, the NFL can do some­thing about the cul­ture of play­ing hurt.

Push­ing through pain is always going to be a part of sports. It’s one thing to do a cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis and play with a sore knee or a wrenched back. Maybe it’s not what a doc­tor would rec­om­mend, but some­times that’s what the game demands. The price might be a short­er career, or a less spry retire­ment. Pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes are more than will­ing to make that tradeoff.

We now know that con­cus­sions are a qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent kind of threat. The stan­dard cost/​benefit analy­sis doesn’t apply. The stakes are much high­er. We’re not talk­ing about pun­ish­ing the body, we’re talk­ing about anni­hi­lat­ing the self.

Dis­cour­ag­ing play­ers from play­ing with con­cus­sions is one of the few things the NFL could do to mit­i­gate the toll the sport takes on the brains of play­ers.
The NFL and the Play­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion need to sup­port a cul­tur­al shift when it comes to play­ing through concussions.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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