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Spate of concussions highlights dangers of NFL

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Neil Reynolds | 12:46 UK time, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

When he watched the week 11 action unfold on Sunday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell must have been a happy man.

The television ratings for his league are going through the roof, international interest continues to grow, Brett Favre is back in the fold and making headlines for all the right reasons and even games featuring bad teams like the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns are turning into high-scoring thrillers.

Exciting games, breathtaking examples of athletic ability and a wide open race to the Super Bowl continue to make the NFL one of the most compelling sports leagues in the world.

But there is one thorny issue that won't go away and it is something the league - led by Goodell - is tackling head on.

Concussions have always been a part of American football but as athletes grow bigger and faster, and the collisions become ever more violent, it is an area of player safety that must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

NFL players are big. But they have not always been as massive and as in-shape as they are today. Go back 20 or 30 years and you would routinely find offensive linemen weighing 270-280 pounds. Now, you would be hard-pushed to find a good blocker up front who weighs in at less than 300 pounds.

Ben Roethlisberger lies concussed after being tackled by Chiefs defensive end Andy Studebaker

And it's not just the big guys along the offensive and defensive lines. Linebackers in the 1970s and 1980s weighed in the region of 220-230 pounds. Many were smaller than that. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Terrell Owens tips the scales at 225 pounds and might have been a defender in a bygone era.

With bigger, fitter and more nutritionally aware players moving at speeds rarely seen before, injuries are going to be a part of all professional team sports - football, rugby, ice hockey. So the NFL is no different in that regard.

But the concern is great in the United States. And this past weekend saw star quarterbacks Kurt Warner, of the Arizona Cardinals, and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger leave their games with concussions. Those injuries made the headlines not only because they featured star passers, but also because they came just days after Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook was sidelined with his second concussion of the year.

The NFL has been criticised in the past for not looking after its former players. And some experts have suggested the sport of American football has a damaging long-term effect on those who play the game.

Former Philadelphia Eagles star safety Andre Waters shot himself in 2006. His suicide came as a result of depression which, according to some experts, was brought on by brain damage he suffered while playing in the NFL. The 44-year-old reportedly had the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man.

Such stories are shocking and worrying. And the NFL is taking action to make sure the players who suit up each and every weekend across America are kept as safe as possible.

Led by Goodell, the league is instigating a plan in which players who suffer concussions will have to be assessed by independent neurologists before he is cleared to return to the playing field.

As the situation stands right now, doctors employed by the team are the ones who make the call on when a player can return to action. Contrast that to rugby union, where there is a three-week ban for players who are concussed, unless a specialist rules them sympton-free.

Surely the current situation in the NFL is worrying for the player. Imagine the Minnesota Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game and Favre gets a kick in the head and suffers a concussion that lingers for a couple of weeks.

Do you think Favre would be cleared to start in the Super Bowl or would the Vikings prefer to go with the considerably-less-talented Tarvaris Jackson in order to keep their star quarterback safe.

Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that one.

And it's not just incumbent on team doctors and NFL officials to keep players safe. Players themselves have a role to play when it comes to tackling the concussion problem. In the scenario I put forward above, Favre would be the first one to come forward and say he was ready to play, putting his body on the line for the good of the team.

Players have to know when to take themselves out of games if they have suffered a concussion. But that is a tough thing to ask because there is a macho element that runs through an NFL locker room. The NFL season is a long, physical grind and players are expected to play through the pain barrier.

It is the same in most sports. Anyone who saw the disgust on Steven Gerrard's face as Ryan Babel limped out of the Liverpool-Manchester City game at the weekend would understand that the play-through-pain mentality is not limited to the NFL.

But there is a great deal of difference between playing through an ankle injury that might leave you with a slight limp in your sixties and ignoring a concussion that might leave you forgetting where you live in your old age.

Players have to recognise the signs and be strong enough to take action and take themselves out of games. Sadly, not all of them do that. Even Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Sean Morey, who serves as co-chairman of the NFL Players Association's committee on brain injuries, admits to playing when he openly knew he had a concussion.

Kurt Warner gets sacked against the Rams

Morey should take note of the actions of his own quarterback. Warner was only slightly dinged up on Sunday but knew he wasn't quite right. He took himself out of the game as a precaution, suffered no further injury and should be ready to return to the field this weekend.

That sensible, cautious approach has to be taken by players from now on and coaches should not make any athlete - regardless of their status on the team - feel the need to play through injury and concussions in order to keep their spot on the roster.

Players can also help themselves equipment-wise. The NFL has made great strides in padding and in developing special shock-absorbent helmets in recent years. But many players still prefer to wear the old-style helmets that do less to protect the head.

And how many times do we see helmets flying off during games? That should never happen. There is padding inside each helmet that can and should be pumped up to protect the skull. For comfort reasons, many players keep that padding to a minimum and they also, more through fashion than anything else, choose not to do up their chin straps.

That is not wise given the severity of hits that are dished out in the NFL each weekend. So players have to get smart and make sure they protect their head to the best of their ability.

Concussions are never going to go away in the NFL or any physical sport, but the NFL is attempting to improve the treatment of such injuries. Everyone will continue to monitor the NFL to make sure the league is doing its bit, but players and coaches would be well served to remember they also have a role to play.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good blog, Neil. Do you think that stronger helmets actually encourages more aggressive hits with the helmet? This certainly was the case years ago when the league moved from leather to hard plastic.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good blog, one of sport´s taboos, ignoring injuries - judging by his attitude Steve Gerrard won´t have to worry too much about brain damage, you can´t damage what isn´t there.
    I can name 2 more taboos in professional sport;
    1. Depression (topic of the month over here in Germany)
    2. Homosexuality - can you imagine an american footballer coming out ? I can´t.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think asking players to be more responsible is criminal. If I was to ask someone who worked for me to do something potentially dangerous its my responsibility (by law) he has the correct PPE and is fit and trained to do the job. So it should be the same for the NLF. The officials need to make sure protective equipment is of the highest quality and used correctly. They also need to introduce rest periods like those seen in rugby and boxing for stung players, you cannot depend on team doctors and players who's main goal is to be ready for the game.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good read as always Neil and it is a very topical point of conversation.

    T-Blades, the NFL are trying to improve this area of the game. Just look at the new rules over the past few years in terms of helmet to helmet contact and undefendable receivers (not the right term i know).

    The NFL fines teams who dont report injuries in the lead up to games - the Jets and Jets coaches from 2008/09 got fined for not reporting an injury to Favre in the lead to some games last year. Basically Favre could have played still but they would have had to list him as questionable/ probable.

    The NFL is working hard to try and make the game safer but the players and teams have to take responsibility. Checking that every players chin-strap is done up before every play is just not possible.

  • Comment number 5.

    Neil, paradoxically the reason there are so many concussions in football is BECAUSE of the helmets...not despite them.

    That's what rececent research reveals. If you watch the NFL football players tackle head first all the time, they feel invincible with the helmet. If they had a scrum cap on like rugby you would see the number of head injuries go down not up.

    You do not see NFL style tacking in rugby because people know it's crazy.

  • Comment number 6.


    The Wall Street Journal just published an article on this very subject
    One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it's a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.

    Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."

    Dhani Jones, a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals who has played rugby, too, says head injuries in that sport do happen, but they're mostly freak accidents. "In football, you're taught to hit with your face," he says. "You're always contacting with your 'hat,' which is your head."

  • Comment number 7.

    It is certainly an interesting argument about the helmets and padding. And to some degree, I think that approach is correct - there is no doubt that American football players and their counterparts in rugby boast vastly differing tackling styles.

    There is certainly a sense of invincibility felt by NFL players. I remember chatting with former Dallas, Indianapolis and Philadelphia offensive lineman Brian Baldinger when I was writing my book on the game's toughest players. And he told me that, towards the end of his career, if he had been offered one more year in the NFL for 10 years off his life in later years, he would have taken it. Because, he said, when you're playing in the NFL, you feel like an invincible gladiator. it kind of comes with the territory.

    That is one of the reasons why players feel this need to get back on the field as soon as possible. And that is a worry. Today I read that Ben Roethlisberger is determined to play this week, even though he only suffered his concussion on Sunday.

    That goes back to that macho approach and the belief that team leaders should play through as many injuries as physically possible.

  • Comment number 8.

    Good blog Neil, an interesting subject and of course you raise some great points.
    My view is that whilst the helmets may on occasions cause injury, on the whole they protect players from serious injury.
    If you imagine a 300lb lineman hitting you on the blind side I'd take a short term minor concussion rather than long term brain damage.
    There are many sports and vocations in life where the work you do can cause injury, find me a retired dancer without joint problems, a lumberjack without back problems etc, it is an known accepted risk, if you don't want to take that risk then the option always exists to leave the sport and get a desk job (where you'll probably get RSI and eye problems !).
    There is a need to protect players from serious injury but it's a physical sport and those participating know and understand the risks involved.

  • Comment number 9.

    Injury discussion aside, I thought Dixon covered well for Roethlisberger last night, especially given the low and often insulting expectations from ESPN's talking heads.

    The stats don't do his performance justice - He was let down on a number of good plays by O-line penalities and the whole coaching staff was thrown by the zone-blitz for the OT interception, not just Dixon.

    ps. Delighted to see the Niners back in the mix for a wild-card spot. Their generous run-in schedule even suggests to me that they may catch the cards. California dreamin', perhaps.


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