Earlier this week, the league levied steep fines for several violent hits delivered by players either as helmet-to-helmet contact or hitting defenseless receivers. The primary issue is the threat of concussion, an injury to the brain that can result in the loss of memory, reduced cognitive ability, and an inability to speak normally. In severe or repeated cases, concussions can cause ongoing headaches, change one’s personality, and accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Mechanically, a concussion takes place when the brain strikes the inside of the skull through some sort of traumatic force. Think of the brain as a loosely-belted passenger in a car, and recall Newton’s first and second laws of physics. If the car is driving straight ahead and crashes into a brick wall, the passenger will continue moving ahead at the previous speed until the belt or the dashboard stops him. Similarly, in a head-on helmet-to-helmet hit, the brain crashes into the front of the skull, potentially causing temporary or long-term damage. When you consider how the game is played and the sense of invincibility that players likely feel with helmets and pads, it’s a wonder that concussions aren’t suffered on every play.
The truth is that concussions are probably more prevalent in the game than we know, but they are difficult to detect because they don’t always present symptoms right away. It’s not like a player who has popped a hamstring or broken an arm and has to be helped off the field. The damage may be done, the player “shakes it off,” but over time the hits add up, resulting in a story like that of San Francisco 49er George Visger, a retired lineman who has had to scribble notes to himself since the mid-1980s to remember what he did yesterday or what he has to do today. Although momentum has been building over the past couple of years toward focusing on the role of violent hits in football on concussions, it has finally seemed to bubble over this week with the administration of hefty fines and the threat to suspend players who deliver these hits. It’s about time. As recently as five years ago, I don’t think anyone was talking about concussions, and I certainly don’t remember any player being held out of practice or a game due to one. And yet the evidence that players have suffered concussions in the 90-year history of the league is overwhelming. In 2007, Alan Schwarz of The New York Times wrote an exposé on the link between concussions and depression, quoting a neuropathologist’s claim that concussions likely contributed to the 2006 suicide of Philadelphia Eagles’ Andre Waters. Another neurologist evaluated New England Patriots’ Ted Johnson and linked his “depression and cognitive decline” to concussions… the worst of which was suffered during practice. A 2001 article by John Marshall of CBC Sports cited a study conducted in 1995-96 that revealed a 61% concussion rate in the NFL. The article also mentioned the role concussions played in Troy Aikman’s and Steve Young’s decisions to retire. In the end, although it’s taken the league several years to seemingly take real notice, I suppose it’s better late than never. Unfortunately, it may already be too late for active players who suffered nasty hits just last Sunday – Todd Heap, Mohamed Massoquoi, and one of my favorites, DeSean Jackson.