Concussions: The NFL Isn't Doing Enough To Promote Player Safety

Why isn't the NFL doing everything they can to promote player safety and discourage dirty players?

Here’s a fact that the NFL isn’t going to tell you. The newest actuarial numbers show that one player in three will be affected by brain trauma.

What happens in a concussion? Everyone knows the answer to this one, right? The brain itself sloshes back and forth in the cranium, smacking into the skull and creating damage. That’s partly correct — and it’s the ‘partly’ aspect that should scare us the most. Relatively few people actually know what happens in brain trauma. That stops very few of them from screaming their opinions. 

Let’s go with the data from an unusual source — Popular Science.  Matt Giles wrote an excellent piece for them that dealt with this topic. The photo below is of a memorable hit by one of the league’s best-known cheap-shot artists.

Vontaze Burfict dropped in the draft, among other reasons, because of his pointless attempts to injure other players. The only things that have changed are his uniform and his paycheck. He’s still a cheap-shot artist.

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

From Popular Science, February 5, 2016:

“No matter who you root for during this Sunday’s Super Bowl 50, a showdown between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, you can be sure the competition will be so fierce that there will be an estimated 130-plus plays hundreds of hits, tackles, spears, and lay-outs. For a young and healthy athlete, that can lead to serious brain trauma.

“According to the NFL, there were 271 documented game-related concussions this past season — the most recorded by the league since 2011. Roughly one-third of those were caused by helmet-to-helmet contact. One of the worst of those hits occurred in January, during a grinding back-and-forth playoff match between Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, a game generally regarded as one of the season’s dirtiest.”

Vontaze Burfict was a dirty player in college and he’s a filthy player in the NFL. Until he’s ejected the next time he tries to injure another player, the league is proving that it’s not honestly concerned with player safety. 

Burfict is so well-known for his attacks on other players that the NY Daily News put together a ‘cheapest hits’ list of his most impressive ignoring of the rules of the game. Players and coaches alike have complained to the league with no action taken. He was finally suspended for three whole games for attempting to harm Antonio Brown.

Derek Wolfewas suspended four games in 2015 for taking an over-the-counter medicine. What the heck?

What’s of greater concern than the number of concussions is the angle of many of them. Most concussions are either front to back or compression impacts. Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-director at Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, broke down the film of Burfict’s hit. After considerable study, he concluded that the hit was on the side of Brown’s helmet, causing a rotational concussion.

This is the one that really scares me. It doesn’t slosh the brain against the cranium. It literally spins the brain in place, within its cushion of the cerebrospinal fluid. Some of the nerve fibers that should hold the brain in place stretch under that stress.

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1628249-can-robots-prevent-head-i...

Some are stretched so thin that they no longer can hold nutrients. Others tear. That’s also true of the blood vessels, which can then cause a stroke. Most such impacts never heal. That player will have them until they die. 

But you’ve probably never heard of that. Seven high school football players died while playing the game in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, most from brain trauma. Like all the problems caused by brain trauma, the NFL would prefer that you don’t know about them.

What the NFL actually does about this problem has bordered on nothing. With the violence of this game getting out of hand, Burfict received a 15 yard penalty for unnecessary roughness, with no ejection. Did it help matters? No.

Antonio Brown still couldn’t play the Divisional Round in Denver, and that hurt him, his loved ones, his fans, Denver’s fans and the Divisional game viewers. Does the league care? Not if judged by their actions. 

Roger Goodell has brought up a vague but hopeful suggestion that there be an escalating process to throw such players out of the game. It’s one thing he and I can agree on. How it could be implemented would be contentious. 

However, the league ended up adopting a rule that would eject a player, if said player was flagged for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, which in the case of Burfict's hit on Brown, wouldn't have resulted in ejection. Here's a snippet from PFT

"As it turned out, the NFL passed a much narrower rule than what Goodell outlined at his press conference: Players will only be ejected if they get two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for abusive language, baiting, taunting, or throwing a punch, forearm or kick at an opponent (even if he doesn’t make contact)."

The NFL reported the highest number of concussions ever in 2015. That’s not because there are more concussions. It’s because they’re beginning to watch somewhat more carefully.

They are supposed to have an ‘independent’ neurologist on the sideline (which, I hold, will never be independent until a group outside of the franchise or league’s governance hires, monitors and fires such people).

They now have trained individuals in the upper box whose only job is to scan the players, looking for one that is slow to get up, shows problems with balance or starts mis-remembering plays. It is, at best, a work in progress. 

Case Keenum was stumbling around after a hard hit, his balance visibly impaired, but they left him in the game. He threw two incompletions and then fumbled.

That was the end of his game. It cost the Rams their game against the Ravens. It may have cost Case Keenum a lot more than that. He’ll find out down the road.

The Rams’ excuse was that the certified spotter in the upper box saw Keenum speak briefly to the trainer. The spotter then assumed Keenum was being cared for.

Of course, he could have just picked up the phone and asked, as he should have. Coach Jeff Fisher put it down to having a new system and working the bugs out. I don’t. Carelessness in this area by the league has been rampant. 

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1606135-examining-the-risks-of-yo...

If a player loses consciousness, he’s concussed. That is and should be beyond debate. But most concussions don’t cause any loss of consciousness. The worst outcome is to have multiple smaller concussions over time — often the smaller ‘compression’ concussions that linemen commonly have.

That’s more likely to support the buildup of ‘tau proteins’. They’re a sticky substance that indicates Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the disease that usually is associated with outbursts of anger, uncontrollable emotions and eventually, death.

In 1997, the American Academy of Neurology recommended that concussed athletes knocked unconscious be withheld from play until asymptomatic for at least one week. The NFL rejected the recommendation.

Seven years later, an international panel of sports concussion experts recommended that concussed athletes should not return to play the same day, even if they never lost consciousness (which we now know to be much more dangerous, individually or over time). The NFL again rejected the recommendation. It’s what they do. Now we have a concussion protocol. Hopefully, it will improve over time. 

John Elway, Gary Kubiak and the entire Denver Broncos franchise, from everything I can tell, go out of their way to preserve the health of the players. Considered rationally, these are the men you want to win your games each season. 

The healthier they are, the better the chances for your team to go deep into the playoffs. It’s only sensible to take care of them (not to mention humane). That’s why Luke Richesson (Strength & Conditioning Coach) and company were hired. It’s why veterans get extra days off. 

I wish the league showed half that level of concern.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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