It took the NFL a long while to get it’s act together regarding concussions, but it’s starting to make progress.
Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist at a concussion clinic associated with Children’s Hospital in Boston, says that at first the NFL was ignoring data and overtures by medical and psychological experts that showed the severity of the league’s concussion problem, but recently it has reversed course.
“I often think cynically that it’s politics and money — and it’s not that I think the NFL wouldn’t want to value player health, but they are often slow in responding to player health as the number one reason to introduce new technology.”
It seems obvious that the NFL should have been making every effort to prevent severe head injuries for a long time, but Chirban makes a good point that the culture of football rewards acts of toughness and bravery over a player’s health.
“It seems so obvious outside of the culture of sports, but I do fully appreciate that that sports ethic has really overvalued sacrificing the body for the outcome,” Chirban says. “That’s just been part of the culture. I can speak in two ways about it. It’s about time, and I get it.
The concussion issue won’t be solved overnight, but there have been encouraging signs of change. Chirban says that players are starting to handle concussions with more caution than before.
“It’s no longer humiliating to be out for concussions. It used to be a badge of honour – ‘Yeah, I was seeing stars but I went back in and I made this play.’ The players have placed their own health in higher regard.”
The NFL has worked to increase awareness this season and has been levying more consistent fines on defenders that deliver blows to the head. Those efforts will be aided by the implementation and improvement of various new technologies.
Next season, the league will place sensors in NFL helmets that measure the g-force of impact. If a player were hit hard enough, the sensor would provide a numerical reading that indicates the player has suffered a concussion.
The next step could be the wide-scale implementation of impact testing, a neuro-psychological assessment already used by the Steelers when they were testing Ben Roethlisberger a few years ago. The instrument could go a long way toward judging when it is safe for concussed players to return to action.
It’s impossible to say whether the NFL’s increased efforts have had a major affect yet, but there is reason for hope. More concussions were reported in 2010 than ever before as the league has been working to protect players from returning too early when the consequences could be dangerous. It’s part of a “collective voice of people putting players’ health before wins and losses.”
Concussions will never be eliminated from a game as violent as football, but Chirban thinks that there will be major progress over the next few years. She compares simple prevention measures like sensors in helmets to seat belts in cars. “It becomes part of the industry standard because we just get it that we have to force people to be cautious, otherwise they can cause injury or death to themselves or others in unnecessary ways. So when you legislate something like a seat belt – seat belts still don’t stop whiplash. But they can provide a standard that keeps people safer. As long as people drive cars there is going to be whiplash and as long as people play football there are going to be concussions… What we can do is make it safer.”
Chirban says the key is to maximise prevention, improve recovery, and make sure that players don’t return to the field before it’s healthy to do so.
While Chirban certainly wants the concussion problem fixed in the NFL, the league’s increased attention to head injuries also has a major impact on youth sports. Youth and high school leagues around the country now require medical clearance for any athlete that suffers a head injury to return to the field. Chirban thinks the NFL’s influence on concussions extends even farther than that.
“If your favourite player is out for four playoff games because they actually had a concussion and it’s taken seriously, those developing athletes are more likely to take their own health seriously. So it has a dramatic impact on the culture of football.”
If Chirban is right, and that culture is actually beginning to change, we may see major progress in the treatment and prevention of concussions in the coming years.
“I get why this takes so long, because there’s really a culture change happening as well.”
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