With the 2012–2013 NFL season officially over, it's time to reflect. Fans might be wondering what happened to their team in the playoffs, players may be reliving that one play in their head over and over, and New Englanders will forever be talking about why Gronk just had to break his arm again during the most important game of the Pats' season (no, I'm not bitter or anything!). But while all this is happening, administrative professionals in the field will be taking a major look at the health and safety of their players for not only next season, but for athletes years and years to come.
During the pre-coverage for the Superbowl last week, there was a live interview conducted with President Obama. One of the questions posed to him was, if he had a son, whether or not Obama would allow him to play football. While most would think that during a Superbowl interview, the President would respond with a resounding “yes,” he was not as quick to give the green light. The President's reasoning behind his response was based upon a current, ever-present discussion regarding concussions in football—and not just at the national level.
At its most elementary level, a concussion is a brain injury. It is an injury that has both short- and long-term effects that can take, as some articles have reported, 20 years off an athlete's life. With a multitude of symptoms ranging from confusion, headaches, and nausea/vomiting to unequal pupils and walking problems, concussions need to be taken seriously at all times. To list everything about a concussion (which should tell you something about this issue!) would be more than extensive for this blog, so make sure to check out each of the specific symptoms, prognoses, treatments, and more at the US National Library of Medicine.
From Pop Warner to college
Young football players generally start out playing Pop Warner in their hometowns until they reach the junior high/high school level where the game starts to pick up speed. What many researchers, officials, and parents are starting to realize is that changes need to happen even at the youngest level to allow for bigger changes down the line.
If a small child is hit in the head during a Pop Warner game, the odds of them getting a concussion from that hit are much higher than an adult because their brains are not fully developed. Additionally, it will take a child longer to recover from a concussion than an adult. This almost counteracts a lot of what people might think—that children can bounce back much quicker than their adult counterparts. That's not the case for concussions, and we find those children back on the field just as fast as a pro who had a comparable hit to the head.
Pop Warner is important to this debate because this is where the first concussions happen. If there is a way to streamline the problem at the lowest level, athletes can be protected right when they begin playing the sport. This way, players heading into high school, heading in to college, and even into the pros will have less, if not zero, concussions behind them; thus, improving the quality of life way down the road for these athletes.
The long-term concussion effect
Junior Seau, former pro football player, brought the concussion problem to light most recently when he committed suicide last May. Just a month ago, the National Institutes of Health reported that Seau had a “degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.” Specifically, they believe that the brain disease was consistent with “chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head.”
...since C.T.E. was diagnosed in the brain of Eagles defensive back Andre Waters after his suicide in 2006, the disease has been found in nearly every former player whose brain was examined posthumously.... Researchers at Boston University, who pioneered the study of C.T.E., have found it in 33 of the 34 brains of former NFL players they have examined.
There is no getting around the fact that concussions play a major role in an athlete's life, even after they are done with the game. Who would think something that someone loves so much can actually kill them?
When one current pro football player was asked if he would let his child play football, his response was truly enlightening: “It seems like all of the evidence points to my playing football as basically slowly killing myself. Why would I want that for my kids?”
Winning the game at all costs
One of the first places we might need to look at in college athletics is the administration behind a college/university football team. Do the coaching staff and medical professionals around the athletes have players’ interests in mind?
There have been a few games highlighted this past season that led to questions about the people around the team and what their own end-game really is. Specifically, back in September 2012, the University of Arizona's quarterback was kicked in the head during a play and showed an immediate sign of a concussion (vomiting). After being quickly examined by the medical team, the QB was allowed back into the game and began to vomit again a little later—which finally prompted those on the sidelines to take him out of the game and examine him again, which included conducting a concussion test.
What it came down to was the coach needed his quarterback in the game. Even though he was showing signs of a concussion, the signs weren't enough to choose to have him sit out the rest of the game. If the quarterback had been hit in the head again, it could have resulted in significant brain swelling (what happens when the first concussion has not healed and the individual receives a second concussion), or a major concussion, which would no doubt affect how and if he could play for the rest of the season/his life. Is one game really worth it?
Plans from here on out
The NFL seems to be trying to put its best foot forward on the subject of concussions. In addition to working on rules that fine players for illegal hits that result in concussions (or could result in a concussion), the NFL is employing two top-tier organizations to help research the short- and long-term effects of concussions and ways to make protective gear better to combat these horrific hits.
The NFL has teamed up with General Electric to help “jump-start development of imaging technology that would detect concussions and encourage the creation of materials to better protect the brain.”
Additionally, the league has decided to work with Harvard University on a study of 1,000 retired players that will span 10 years. The goal of the study is simple: “to begin to transform the health of active and retired players within five years.” When you think about it, this research is so important because it will hopefully be able to give these athletes a longer life span or at least be able to save the younger generation.
Both unions show a major push by the NFL to start making huge changes to the world of concussions and football. The findings from Harvard and the development from GE will, if all goes well, undoubtedly change the sport from Pop Warner all the way up to the pros.