Could the NFL ever be safe?

The National Football League has had 47 rule changes since 2002 aimed at preventing injuries and improving players’ overall safety Those rules have been geared more toward protecting the...

  • The National Football League has had 47 rule changes since 2002 aimed at preventing injuries and improving players’ overall safety
  • Those rules have been geared more toward protecting the head and neck in light of recent studies which have found brain injury and CTE in former players
  • 2017 was a landmark year in research that highlights the dangerous impact the game can have on the brain – believed to be the cause for degenerative diseases
  • Though rules have become stricter, the concussion rate has not seen a dramatic drop and the league averages 243 reported concussions per season
  • Some experts suggest eliminating contact, especially during practice, which raises questions of the future of the sport  

This was an unprecedented year in research highlighting the dangers of head injuries to football players, striking the NFL and raising questions about the future of the league. 

In an attempt to improve players’ overall safety and prevent injuries, the NFL has implemented nearly 50 rule changes in the past 15 years, with the most recent ones geared at protecting the head and neck. 

However, even with added safety precautions the rate of concussions per season has not seen a consistent drop and even rose 58 percent in 2015 – the highest number in four years of record-keeping. 

Added pressure has been put on the league from players and their families who believe the NFL has enabled head trauma by knowingly dismissing previous research that revealed the damaging effects on the brain.  

There is no way to know if the game can ever be safe while maintaining the essence of what it is, which is the question on players’, officials’ and fans’ minds as experts try to grapple with a league that averages 243 reported concussions per season.   

Daily Mail Online broke down what we know about the rules thus far, future options being explored and how impossible that question may be to answer.

The history of football and brain injury  

Groundbreaking new research revealed a degenerative brain disease called CTE in 99 percent of former players whose brains were examined after death.

The study published in July was the largest of its kind that spotted CTE in 110 of 111 brains.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head that result in confusion, depression, dementia, aggression and suicidal thoughts.

Though the new research brought the disease into the public eye, doctors have been finding CTE in dead players’ brains for more than a decade but the findings have been repeatedly dismissed by the NFL.

The first case of CTE in football players was discovered in 2002 by Dr Bennet Omalu who examined former player Mike Webster’s brain, who suffered from mental and mood disorders.

After Dr Omalu diagnosed several other players with the disease, he published his findings in 2005. 

That same year the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee said that returning to play after sustaining a concussion ‘does not involve significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.’

It wasn’t until last year, after a swell of research showed the damaging effects football has on the brain and the 2015 movie Concussion which starred Will Smith as Dr Omalu, that the NFL acknowledged the connection between football and CTE.

Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against the league by former players and their families for the NFL’s handling of concussion-related injuries, wrongful death and negligence. 

The NFL paid billions of dollars in settlements while they continued to dispute and reject the evidence of football’s long-term impacts on the brain.

Between 2009 and 2015, there were a total of 10,577 regular-season injuries. 

Of those injuries, 1,113 were regular-season concussions.

Cleared by teams’ medical staff, players were often sent back into the game with a concussion.

Facing pressure to protect its players, the multi-billion dollar NFL implemented a concussion protocol in 2009 that it continues to adjust each season. 

In 2016 the league added a rule to their protocol that said teams would face fines of $100,000 or more if they failed to take players out of the games after sustaining a concussion.

However, even in the current season hard hits to players such as Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers and Tom Savage of the Houston Texans who both returned to play, made viewers skeptical of how effective the protocol really is.

The Seattle Seahawks became the first team in the NFL to be fined for not following the concussion protocol after quarterback Russel Wilson suffered a hard hit to the chin and was tested in the medical tent on the sideline for just seconds before returning to play.

The team was fined $100,000, the maximum punishment for a first-time offense. In addition to the fine, the Seahawks’ coaching and medical staffs will be required to attend remedial training regarding concussion protocol.    

Experts believe there are far more concussions than are reported due to players wanting to continue to play. 

Biomedical researcher Stefan Duma told Daily Mail Online: ‘We use a number of 10 to one. We think that for every concussion that is diagnosed, there are 10 that are not diagnosed. We think it’s that prevalent.’

Earlier this year Gisele Bundchen, the wife of Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady claimed that her husband had experienced a concussion during the 2016 season – none of which were ever reported. 

Who are the former players with CTE?

The most popular case of CTE that brought the condition to light came after the suicide of New England Patriots running back Aaron Hernandez.

Hernandez was serving a life sentence for murder when he killed himself in his jail cell earlier this year.

A brain examination done in September found that Hernandez suffered from the most-severe form of the disease ever reported, though the Patriot’s postseason injury reports showed that during his three seasons he was only listed with a concussion once.

Despite that injury, Hernandez played that week, making seven receptions as the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens, 23-20, in the AFC Championship game on January 22, 2012. 

Hernandez’s family members have sued the NFL claiming the league hid the dangers of football.

The suit states: ‘By the time Aaron entered the NFL in 2010, defendants were fully aware of the damage that could be inflicted from repetitive impact injuries and failed to disclose, treat or protect him from the dangers of such damage.’

This family is just one the many that speculate that CTE is behind their love ones’ erratic behavior, mental issues and suicides, sparking wrongful death lawsuits.

Former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson shot himself aged 50 after reportedly suffering years of cognitive and motor issues. 

He purposely pointed the gun to his chest instead of his heads when he took his own life in 2011, leaving a suicide note that said he wanted his brain to be examined by scientists.

‘Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,’ the note read. 

Duerson was later found to have CTE. 

He played from 1983 to 1993 – before many of the new safety rules were put in place to protect the head and at a time when research was slim on the long-term effects the impact of football can have on the brain.

A year after Duerson’s death, former player Junior Seau was found dead with a gunshot wound to his chest. 

The 20-year football veteran’s brain examination also revealed he had CTE.

Though CTE can only be diagnosed after death, former players have come forward convinced they suffer from the neurodegenerative disease. 

Earlier this month former NFL star Larry Johnson spoke out and said he has demons in his head that almost pushed him to jump off a roof – blaming years of repeated blows to the head which he believes have resulted in CTE.

He added that he suffers memory loss and cannot remember two full seasons of his time in the NFL. 

Johnson has a history of violent behavior including six arrests, five of which were assault charges against women. 

Other former players including Mark Gastineau, who played 10 seasons with the New York Jets, have been diagnosed with crippling brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia while former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason has been diagnosed with ALS. 

All of these conditions are believed to be tied to years of constant blows to the head.

These are just a few cases of the hundreds of football players, both dead and alive, who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury or show signs of CTE.

 

Source: Daily Mail UK

Featured Image: 610 Sports Radio

Inset Image: Getty Images

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