NFL at a crossroads with concussions

Posted Nov. 20, 2012 @ 10:12 a.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

We have heard an awful lot about concussions in the NFL in recent years, but I don’t recall it ever being as hot a topic as it has been over the past week or two. Concussions to three of the game’s top quarterbacks — Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Jay Cutler — made it almost impossible to prepare for or predict the outcomes of their club’s games this week, and concussions to non-quarterbacks, including Steelers S Ryan Clark, who has had two in the past four games, have been equally significant.

Countless words and hours of conversation on sports talk radio have been spent on the following topics: players talking about what they would do to stay on the field; what the NFL is actually doing about the concussion problem; what the protocol is when a player is suspected of having suffered a concussion; what the NFL is doing to deal with the problem; and what the league’s responsibility and liability to its players might be and should be once their careers are over. The truth is, however, none of those issues compare at all in magnitude to the one simple truth about concussions that is as plain as any truth we’ve ever known.

The only way the potential danger of concussions will not lead to the end of pro football as we know it in the near future is if players sign waivers going forward, guaranteeing the NFL owners that they will not be held liable for the players’ health and well-being regardless of whether or not they suffer concussions and/or brain damage as a result of playing the game.

The NFL owners are already facing hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars of liability from class-action lawsuits filed by former players. For the NFL owners to go forward without protection would be foolish, and knowing how these 32 guys love money, it’s ridiculously naïve to believe they will.

We can talk about concussions and debate their impact on the game until we’re blue in the face, but there is one fact we can’t escape no matter how hard we try. As long as pro football is played the way it is today, there is absolutely nothing the owners, players, coaches, officials or anyone else can do to eliminate or even minimize concussions. While I applaud the efforts led by commissioner Roger Goodell to make the game safer with rules changes regarding helmet-to-helmet contact and now hits of any kind above the shoulders or to defenseless players, how’s that working out so far?

Perhaps it’s as much about the heightened awareness we all have for concussions today — and doctors watching much more closely for them — but it seems clear that concussions appear to be increasing, even since the rules changes have taken effect.

While I have no statistical data to prove this, it seems extremely clear to me that as many concussions are occurring from whiplash, players hitting their heads on the ground or accidentally making contact with other players’ hips, elbows or knees as they do from helmet-to-helmet contact or intentional above-the-shoulder hits.

And the idea of finding better equipment to make the game safer simply ignores the reality of how concussions are caused. All of our brains are enclosed inside our skulls, and concussions are caused when the head is jarred, forcing the brain to bounce off the inside of the skull and become bruised. Helmets can protect players from bruises outside the skull, broken noses and facial bones and cuts and scrapes, but they do nothing to prevent your brain from bouncing off the inside of your skull. The only way to avoid a concussion is to guarantee your brain doesn’t hit the inside of your skull, and one of the few guarantees you get playing football is that, played the way it is at the highest levels, it will.

For all of the wonder and miracles of modern medicine, doctors just don’t know enough about why some players become concussed and others don’t. They don’t know exactly why some players who are concussed recover quickly and completely while others suffer long range — and we are now finding out in more and more cases — permanent damage. To continue down that path means NFL players aren’t just playing football, they’re playing Russian Roulette with their future health and well-being, and that is insane.

The fact appears to be that the only way to completely protect the players and owners is to make it a non-contact sport. So, unless I’m missing something, pro football cannot continue as we know it today.