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Are Concussions Over-Sensationalized?

24 Apr

December 24, 2013

football - concussion

Concussions are serious business. Ask the few former boxers who are still able to communicate clearly about concussions. Inquire with the doctors that treat head and neck injuries in trauma centers. Speak to the people who live with former members of the National Football League(NFL) about the state of their loved ones. Men (who presumably attain more head trauma through sports than women) report extreme memory loss, blackouts, and erratic and violent behaviors that can all be attributed to sustaining multiple concussions over their lifetime. Concussions can ruin the lives of the people that have had several head injuries and the quality of life of their significant others. But, with all the focus that fans have put on concussions in the NFL this season, the league has become hyper-vigilant in policing players who receive this particular kind of  injury. Concussions represent a major health concern for all football players, however the issue may not be as threatening as it has been perceived to be. Boxers rarely engage in an excess of violent and self-inflicted harm after they leave the ring despite competing in a sport that is just as violent as football with less head protection. And, football players rarely develop Parkinson’s disease which is directly related to the repeated head injuries that come from boxing. Newer studies show that most NFL players will never suffer a concussion during their career and that the number of concussions in the NFL has been roughly the same despite a more stringent focus on the injury. The issue of concussions are being pushed and publicized by the media’s coverage of the recent extremely violent cases of concussions, the National Football League’s desire to displace blame and liability for concussions solely on the players, and the projected fears of football moms and fantasy football fans who never played the game.

The media coverage of the deaths of former NFL players acted as a vehicle for the discussion of the impact of concussions (pun intended). Concussions are a huge story in National Football League front offices and in the media rooms. The premature deaths of NFL players, especially the high profile suicide of Junior Seau and the death of Mike Webster, pushed the stories of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the intracranial scarring of brain tissue and the subsequent mental disease that come from repeated blows to the head – into the forefront of the minds of the American public, and a panic ensued. National Football League fans were taken aback by the frequency of indictments made by former players against the NFL and the lasting effects of CTE on these former players. It is absolutely necessary for the public to know the plight of these football players because the fans need to know the fate of their valiant heroes. However, the public display of CTE cases by the media has been careless and magnified by poor reporting. Football coverage of CTE exclusively follow cases where athletes suffer from failing memory, violent outbursts, and erratic behavior. The Junior Seau suicide was reported fervently because he purposely shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be retained for research. But, the media rarely tells stories of players who left the game without any permanent trauma from football or the current players who would still play despite the impending reduced state of their brains. They instead focus on the most extreme cases of CTE with the most dramatic, tragic end. The fans cherish these men who put their bodies through sheer punishment every Sunday in the names of their respective cities and franchises, and the athletes will play through pain and injury despite the impending ramifications. The NFL saw an opportunity to quell future lawsuits over concussions and appear to be the amiable big brother of the players to fans. They took the stance that athletes need an impartial party to protect them from themselves and their employers. Complete transparency regarding concussions in the NFL is necessary to combat the attempts of management and owners to under or over report the effects of long term exposure to head injuries in their favor. But, responsible journalism is necessary too. The incidence rate of concussions is higher over the last few years, but fairly similar to the number of concussions that the NFL has had over the last decade. Media coverage of only the most extreme cases of CTE unfairly biased fans who were unfamiliar with the effects of CTE.

The National Football League recently changed its stance on football related injuries and awarded the former players $756,000,000 over the next twenty years. But, the NFL’s supposed compliance with the player’s union results solely from the terrible publicity that the NFL has received as a result of highly publicized, recent player deaths involving CTE. The change in policy on how concussions are dealt with from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a small admittance that the league has been somewhat negligent with the safety of players. The continuance of NFL players filing suit against the league and the consequent media tailspin has forced Goodell to open up about the truth of how concussions were handled. And, Goodell fought to keep that covered. Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, hired Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist with no background in neural behavior to lead his research team and squelch any attempt that qualified researchers tried to give of any contradictory evidence. The NFL officially hired the MTBI committee, a group of hand-picked professionals who backed the league, and ignored the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who autopsied Hall of Fame center Mike Webster’s brain after his suicide. Pellham’s committee published 16 papers that refuted any evidence stating that football caused trauma to the brain. Contrarily, Omalu and his colleagues found that the trauma that Webster and over 200 other men received over the course of multiple years of football did significantly negatively affect their quality of life. They suffered all the classic signs of CTE, including memory loss, emotional instability, and erratic behavior. Omalu published public papers of two NFL player brains that displayed the serious degenerative brain disease that these player suffered from in 2000, and Pellham and his committee pursued him and attacked his credibility.

I wish I never met Mike Webster. CTE has driven me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They will squash you.

Dr. Bennet Omalu

Until 2009, Omalu was called a heretic for his claims. But, once the symptoms of CTE could no longer be brushed off by the commissioner, he discredited them. Several studies by other doctors of neurology ensued, and all of them were eschewed by the NFL. In fact, when an in-house study that exposed a link between brain damage and the NFL was leaked to the New York Times, the National Football League dismissed their own findings in the research. The National Football League has been so reckless and overzealous in their quest to cover up their liability with players that they have caused their fans to question their competency and credibility. The NFL has fought to deny any knowledge of the cumulative effect of blows to the head and have minimized their role in promoting big hits. NFL film pushed the big hit because football was once considered a defensive game. And, that is okay. Concussions do exist in the NFL, but they do not occur as prevalently as people think they do. The official number of head injuries has increased every year since 2009, moving from 92, to 129, 142, to 160. However, a significant amount of the concussions are due to more vigilance on the part of teams due to litigation.The lower numbers of concussions in ’09 could be attributed to under-reporting the injury. And, the consequent rise in concussions are due to a better understanding of how the injury occurs and a more static approach to policing them. The NFL is on pace to have fewer concussions for the first time since 2009. Through Week 16, they have only 146. The NFL is unintentionally hiding facts that could exonerate them.

Men who grew up playing and watching the sport have become desensitized to the violence of it. And, the toughness and determination that is necessary to play the sport is celebrated amongst those men. Consequently, the new rules are abhorred by them. The mothers of little league football players are not fans of the sport though, and neither are fantasy football players. Moms and internet stat heads can not appreciate the spirit of football or the mentality that it takes to play it because they have never participated in the game. Football is a collision sport and it is based in violence. On every play there is contact at every level of the field. The linemen jockey for position, the defensive backs bump wide receivers off their routes, and blitzing linebackers attempt to separate skilled players from the football. Though the game of football is an extremely calculated, synchronized exercise in athletics, the only thing that new viewers see when they watch the games are the violent collisions. And unfortunately, there are far more soccer moms and fantasy football fans than football purists now.

But, part of the reason that the National Football League continues to underplay the effect of concussions is because the NFL uses the rules to influence the way that the game of football is played. Football was once a slow, methodical chess match between coaches. But, only certain fans could appreciate those types of games. Studies suggested that high-scoring matches were much more appealing to every type of fan than the low-scoring games. And, to insure that games are enjoyable, the NFL gives several advantages to their offensive players. Only the most celebrated players are actually protected by the rules committee. Quarterbacks and wide receivers receive preferential treatment from the referees with distinct rulings that disallow defensive players to harm them. Quarterbacks remain almost untouchable on the football field; they can not be touched below the waist or above the shoulders, and any contact with the quarterback’s helmet results in a 15 yard penalty, a first down, and a fine from the player conduct board. Peyton Manning, one of the league’s most recognizable faces missed two years of football because of a high hit. And, Tom Brady missed a year because of a torn ACL. The NFL responded with rule changes. The most exciting players in the NFL are the wide receivers, and in 2006 through 2008, more wide outs were put out of games through head injuries than ever before. The NFL once again changed the rules and levied hefty fines against defenses. Now, wide receivers can not be hit until the have ample opportunity to catch the ball and set their feet. Concussions had stopped some of the most popular athletes in the game from being on the field, so the NFL put rules in place to keep them on the field. The NFL was essentially protecting its own investment.

The National Football League took some major missteps in the handling of concussions over the last few decades. They failed to relay the effects of head trauma to the public once they realized the detrimental effects of it. They promoted big hits, but failed to set up a sufficient health care program for the retired players. And most importantly, they changed the way that the game was played to cover their mistakes without publicly stating the reasons for change. The NFL attempted to make significant changes to the game without alarming fans of their purpose. However, that does not mean that concussions are anymore injurious than they have ever been or that the likelihood of attaining one has increased. By the numbers, concussions seem to be on a decline and ultimately they are a part of the game. Football is a violent sport. Concussions happen when two men collide at high rates of speed. They have become popular fodder for talk around the water cooler, but they are not as prevalent or quite as serious as they may seem.

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