NFL Finally Seeing the Problem with Concussions Could Mean Better Days Ahead

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterOctober 6, 2012

Dec 19, 2010; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie (17) lays on the ground after suffering an apparent concussion against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Anyone watching the NFL in 2012 knows that concussions are as big of a deal as ever before. Every week, it seems like a player has to leave the game and walk over for a sideline test. Each week, a player needs to sit out while his teammates play without him.


See, it isn't about more players having concussions—those concussions were always there. We didn't always call them concussions, however. Instead, it was "getting your bell run," or "jacked up." How many of us can remember (however fuzzily) times in high school or college football where we had what are now called concussion-like symptoms.

The NFL isn't having a concussion epidemic in 2012; it has been having a concussion epidemic for the past decade. What is happening this season is a culture shift—a much-needed spotlight on a long-ignored problem.


Frequency Illusion

When my family and I moved to Florida, we rented a Penske moving truck. At the time we rented, we selected the company because it was the cheapest we could find for a cross-country move. I had only ever heard of Penske in regard to the racing team and was much more familiar with companies like U-Haul and Budget.

Now, having never noticed a Penske moving truck before in my entire life, every single darn moving truck on the road was a Penske!

This is a cognitive bias called frequency illusion or, "The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon." It affects all of us in different ways. Buy an awesome color of car you've never seen before—now everyone has it. Spell your child's name an interesting, unique way—everyone's doing it now.

When our minds are focused on something for the first time, we begin to notice the like instances in the world around us.

Every game, every week, guys are taking a knee for a fallen NFL player.I'm afraid this is the year one of these guys doesn't wake up.

— Jim Rome (@jimrome) October 5, 2012

Right now, the NFL is focused on concussions. Coaches, players, executives, owners, fans, league officials and the media are seeing them everywhere.

More players are self-reporting concussions. More coaches and executives are enforcing return-to-play rules and not seeking to circumvent the issue.

Owners are realizing that long-term investments are better than short-term ones. Fans are getting used to the fact that the focus on concussions isn't going anywhere. League officials are policing the game differently. The media is finally talking about it.

Does it strike anyone as odd that we are cheering and then wincing/gasping and then praying in rinse-repeat fashion hoping player gets up?

— Dan Le Batard Show (@LeBatardShow) October 5, 2012

The concussions are not, in any way, new. The focus on the concussions is new, and a welcome change from a culture that ignored them for generations. And while concussions are not, in any way, good, the focus on them could be a blessing for generations moving forward.


The Game Is a Violent Game, But That Doesn't Mean It Has to Be a Stupid One

Has anyone noticed a lack of action this season as more and more players have sat out?

No? Me neither.

A large, but shrinking, segment of the NFL fan culture thinks that concussions are a necessary part of the game and that the focus on them is part of a ongoing "pussification" of the sport. Their battle cries are heard on social media and comment sections across the web each Sunday: "Why don't you just put skirts on them?" Or, "This isn't the game it used to be!"

Meanwhile, as players like Ramses Barden, Erin Henderson, Laurent Robinson and others sit out this weekend, the games go on and the games will be fine.

Eventually, the game will change in ways to lessen that blow even more. We've already seen expanded offseason rosters and a new, flexible injured-reserve program added to the game. Those are decisions made with the safety of the players in mind, rather than just making money.

With a focus on player safety and concussions, more decisions like those will be made in the future.

Football is, inherently, a violent sport, but violence doesn't mean unchecked idiocy has to govern the game. Violence doesn't mean that anything should go and violence should continue until the bloodthirst of the masses is satisfied.

We, as a culture, love violence, but that violence (in most cases) is tempered by some common sense.

Boxing and mixed martial arts fights don't end when the other guy dies.

Hockey—a game even more inherently violent than football—has rules for player safety. Guess what, they don't let you sharpen the end of the stick and impale the opposing goalie.

Wrestling on TV is watched and loved by millions. Wrestling on old mattresses in the backyard is dangerous.

So, why can't this line which our culture already accepts be applied to football.

Even better: If it's going to be applied to football at the NFL level, the effects are going to trickle down to the NCAA, high school and youth football levels.

It's already happening.

Michigan is about to become the 42nd state to pass a version of the "Lystedt Law," a law which governs return-to-play following concussions in youth sports. The law also provides funding for concussion education, allowing children, parents and coaches to be up-to-date on the latest science regarding athletics and brain health.

The Detroit Lions actively lobbied for the passage of Michigan's new law and publicly supported it.

The NFL (along with the NFLPA) is also supporting a new "Heads Up" initiative through USA Football. The effort is set to teach proper tackling to children in youth football and is providing interactive apps, videos and teaching to help coaches and parents re-teach some of the fundamentals our highlight-hit culture has lost.


The Effects of Decisions Made Today Will Trickle Up as Well

Know what is going to happen when an entire generation of football players realize that proper tackling is safer and more effective than launching helmet-first into a ball-carrier?

Eventually, that mindset will exist in the higher levels of football as well.  

Know what is going to happen when an entire generation of football players are taught that it is OK, even mandatory, for concussions to be reported?

Eventually, that mindset will exist in the high levels of football as well.

Know what is going to happen when an entire generation of football players realize that a concussion is a serious thing, that there's no such thing as a "minor concussion" and that having a concussion can lead to more concussions?

Eventually, that mindset will exist in the high levels of football as well.

The culture in the NFL right now is a mixed bag. Most players understand the risks. They play anyway, because it is the game they love. That doesn't look like its changing anytime soon.

However, players who grew up in that "shake it off, rub some dirt on it" culture still feel embarrassed and pressured to sit out because of a concussion—even though it's one of the more serious injuries that a player can have!

The generation currently in the NFL begs to get back in the game when, just moments earlier, they were unconscious. It isn't a rational decision, but an emotional one made from years of seeing players around them do the same thing. Coaches allowed it, even encouraged it, and no one (until now) ever did a single thing to stop it.

Sadly, because of that, the group of people currently playing in the NFL are probably the most concussion-prone group of athletes the league has ever seen.

Brains are still the last frontier when it comes to understanding the human body, but the medical community is starting to take a much closer look at it, especially as athletics pumps tons of money into the medical-research community. Athlete brains are, intrinsically, more valuable than others because the brains of athletes are an investment.

For that reason, we're now starting to learn about the impact of multiple concussions—that a first concussion can lead to more and more concussions. Austin Collie is not unlucky, he's just had enough concussions in the past that he's nearly certain to get one in the future.

We also know more about concussions as they affect the brains of younger children. Brains continue to develop until around the age of 25. Concussions before 25 directly affect the way that brains develop.

Things like the aforementioned Lystedt Laws as well as the NFL/NFLPA's focus on flag football for children are already taking those lessons learned and applying them to the younger generations.

The hope is that investments made in the younger generation will lead to future players being healthier when they get to the NFL.

These changes are not killing the game we all know and love. These changes are protecting the game for future generations.



Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."


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