The NFL season is finally over—in early February. It was a good Super Bowl game, the outcome in question until the final play. The action was fast and furious; the athleticism awesome. Some of the runs and catches were balletic. This Patriots fan salutes the Eagles and the great city of Philadelphia. When it comes to sports curses, this Red Sox fan understands. Fly, Eagles, fly. And here’s hoping the 41-year-old Tom Brady will be just as effective, and his brain doesn’t get scrambled like eggs.
The matter of concussions and long-term brain injury (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or
CTE) is not over with the season finale. Last week the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Emily Kelly, wife of former NFL player Rob Kelly, now suffering from CTE from his football career. Last week Megyn Kelly of NBC interviewed Mike Adamle and his wife, Kim Adamle. Mike suffers from CTE, directly attributed to his hard driving and hard hitting style as a professional football player, following his years as a college football player, following his years in youth and high school football. It is worth reading that column and streaming that interview. A recent lab study over brains of deceased NFL players found that about 99% of those brains had some level of CTE.
CTE is not limited to football players. In happens in just about every sport in which there are collisions. It happens to veterans of military combat. It happens in everyday life, but not with the incidence that happens in pro football.
The NFL has recognized this and taken some steps. One is to have doctors not employed by the teams on the sidelines of games. Another is to have little tents on the sidelines into which players shaken up by a hard hit are taken for immediate evaluation. If players are medically evaluated as having experienced a concussion, they leave the playing field and are not permitted to re-enter the game. They are not permitted to play again until they have passed the concussion protocol.
These are good steps, but more must be taken. I admit that I am a fan of the Patriots, so I watch their games more carefully. In their league championship game on January 21, one of their star receivers, Rob Gronkowski, was hit helmet-to-helmet after catching a pass. It was a ferocious hit, replayed in slow motion before us. Gronkowski left the game in concussion protocol and didn’t return. The player who hit him so powerfully was flagged and his team received a penalty, but he was allowed to continue playing. The Patriots lost one of their key offensive players early in the game, while the offending player kept right on playing. In the Super Bowl, the championship game after the long season, Patriots’ receiver Brandon Cooks was similarly hit helmet-to-helmet after catching a pass. He was stunned by the ferocious hit, left the game for concussion protocol, and never returned. No penalty was called on the offending player and he continued to play the entire game. Meanwhile, for the second game in a row, both with championship implications, the Patriots played most of the game without one of their prime offensive players.
I suggest two steps. First, when there are helmet-to-helmet collisions, as described above, the offending player be removed from the game, whether the hit was intentional or not. The incidence of concussions in the NFL is such that more serious penalties are needed than a 15-yard penalty. If a player from one team leaves the game after a ferocious hit, the player making the hit should also leave the game. That is only fair to the competitive nature of the game.
Second, the NFL needs to examine the role of the current helmets in causing concussions. Perhaps safer helmets are now available or can be developed. I am convinced the technology exists to make helmets safer. The NFL needs the will to make this happen as soon as possible.
I grew up playing football, from Pop Warner through high school. I never experienced a concussion. Recognizing that players are now larger (a 300-pund lineman is small), stronger (weight training has moved from optional to mandatory; teams have weight coaches), and faster (Olympic and world-class sprinters have played and now play in the NFL) than ever before, there must be ways to preserve the integrity of the game while making it safer. Some states are considering banning tackle football for children. Caring parents are already making that decision for their children.
I really love the game of football, but not its violence. I love its strategy and its athleticism. I love its drama. I love its traditional rivalries, college and pro. But I wonder if I can continue watching it if its concussion causing violence is not reigned in soon.