NFL concussions: a cultural change

It was clear to most football fans that more concussions were being reported this year. The evidence was purely anecdotal, but it sure seemed like every team had a player or two sit out each week because of a head injury sustained in the previous game.

Thanks to the Associated Press, we can confirm that suspicion: The news outlet reports that the number of reported concussions in the NFL is up more than 20 percent from last year; it has increased by more than 30 percent since 2008. This is a huge step for a league that has talked about making concussion awareness a priority for the last couple of years.

Similar data is not yet available for college or high school football, but one expects the trend will trickle down. I recently spoke with two Syracuse University football players, an offensive player and a defensive player, as well as their coach, to get a feel for the culture of concussions at the college level.

“I definitely notice a change [in how concussions are handled],” said senior running back Delone Carter, who has carried the ball more than 600 times in his college career. “I feel like they’re taking the right precautions given the long-term effects concussions have on athletes in this sport.”

Senior linebacker Doug Hogue, who spends his time on the field trying to tackle guys like Carter, takes a practical approach. “We are taught not to put our heads down. Bad form is a problem. My coaches have stressed we keep our head up.” Hogue is relaying what his defensive coaches have emphasized, but the same rule applies to ball carriers: Dropping your head at the point of impact greatly increases the chance of head or neck injury. 

Unfortunately, a recent ESPN The Magazine high school football poll of 600 people (300 players, 100 coaches, 100 parents, 100 athletic trainers) in 23 states suggests that players are the group most resisting the change in thinking. The NFL pushed for players to be more honest about their condition and also to monitor their teammates, and the AP report implied this was happening in the pros. Perhaps the trickle-down effect will take some time.

“I think there is definitely more attention to concussions,” said Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone. “With the NFL, the AFCA [American Football Coaches Association], the NCAA, and the doctors, I trust in them to do the best job for the players. The number one goal for all of us that are involved in this game is player safety. I trust the people that are in those positions to make the right decisions as we go forward.”

The culture surrounding football concussions is changing for the better, though there is still the mentality of some that puts winning (and potential future earnings) ahead of safety. The NFL has backed up some of its talk this season, an encouraging sign for the future.

Carter concluded by saying this about concussions: “I tend not to think about them because I’m trying not to get one.” Let’s hope that if he ever does, Carter, his teammates, coaches, and trainers will think better of putting him back in the game.

–Andrew Kahn

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