Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are common in American football, and we’re only now starting to learn just what a devastating effect they can have on a person over the long term. While TBIs can happen in a variety of different ways, under many different circumstances, they tend to be most common, and perhaps most dangerous, when people are competing in sports that promote violent contact—like American football.
Fortunately, the NFL and other football organizations are making improvements to mitigate the possibility of TBIs occurring, and minimize their lifelong impact on the players who experience them.
Why TBIs Are So Dangerous
Let’s start by defining what a TBI is—and why it’s so dangerous. A TBI is any direct impact or disturbance of the brain, which can be caused by things like penetration into the skull by a foreign object, a direct impact to the head, or even a fall. TBIs can range from mild to severe, but all of them have long-lasting side effects that can significantly affect someone’s quality of life.
Immediately after a TBI, a person may feel nauseated or disoriented, and may have trouble with cognitive tasks. Several days later, they may continue to have trouble with memory and complex mental tasks, and may start to experience changes to their moods and behaviors.
If someone suffers repeated TBIs, as is common in a high-contact sport, they’re shown to have a tremendous risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative condition that results in gradually worsening, irreversible brain damage. More than 100 deceased NFL players were diagnosed to have CTE, the symptoms of which range from chronic forgetfulness to out-of-character violent behavior.
TBIs are also dangerous because they’re still so poorly understood. Doctors and scientists still don’t understand the full range of mechanics that result in TBIs, or how their symptoms manifest. We also don’t have the technology to proactively detect or treat TBIs, so we need to be extra cautious.
Positive Changes for Football
Enjoyment of football is such that it would be ridiculous to ban it outright (along with other high-contact sports), and nobody wants to see tackling—one of the core mechanics of the sport—disappear altogether. But football organizations are toying with new changes that could have a powerful impact on the number and severity of TBIs received by players.
- New age limits. Some youth football organizations are reconsidering the age at which football is taught and allowed to play. The longer a person spends playing football, the more likely they are to suffer additional head injuries, which over time, could accumulate to result in CTE. Disallowing football for kids under the age of 13 could be a positive step to take, and reducing physical impacts in the game could be wise for high school-age kids as well.
- Moved kickoffs and touchbacks. Several years ago, the NFL moved kickoffs and touchbacks up 5 yards, to the 30-yard and 25-yard lines, respectively. This reduced the amount of speed that players were able to generate and reduced the incentive for the other team to return a ball. Some fans were upset by this change, insisting that it would take away some of the excitement and competitiveness of the sport, but it has also reduced the number of traumatic impacts for players.
- Sportsmanship enforcement. Refs have also gotten more serious about enforcing poor sportsmanship. Unnecessary roughness and other calls have gotten more common, and penalties have gotten steeper for players who consistently strive for those high impacts.
- Crown-of-the-helmet rules. The NFL has also introduced a new penalty that punishes players if they lower their helmet before a hit. This simple change could dramatically reduce the number of TBIs that occur during a tackle, both for the tackler and for the person being tackled. This change came after the 2017 season, where several high-profile head and spinal cord injuries made headlines.
- Concussion evaluation. Finally, NFL officials, coaches, and medical professionals are taking concussion evaluation more seriously. If a player looks like they’ve sustained a TBI, they’re examined thoroughly, they’re temporarily taken out of the game, and they may not be allowed to return for several days to a week or more as they’re evaluated after the injury. This can help ensure no further damage is done, while simultaneously improving our understanding of how TBIs manifest and develop.
Are These New Rules Enough?
While the NFL and other football organizations have made positive changes to reduce the rate and impact of TBIs among their players, they’ve also tried to downplay and/or ignore the full range of impact that TBIs and CTE could have on players. It’s good that we’re making progress to keep our players, at all levels, safe, but we’re going to need more protection and more advanced detection equipment in the future to minimize this risk further. More importantly, we need to focus on education—both in terms of improving our understanding of TBIs and in helping players of all ages know the risks of the sport before they begin participating.