Head concussions are nothing new in the NFL. Last week, Green Bay Packer receiver Davante Adams became the latest victim of a severe hit by a defensive player leading to his removal from the game for a head concussion. Until recently, few, if any, protocols were in place for players who suffered severe head trauma during a game. In the past, it was not uncommon to see players walking to the wrong sideline after a head injury from a hard tackle. Often, the player would receive little or no intervention by medical staff during the actual game. Worse yet, many injured players would simply sit out one or two plays and then re-enter the game unaware of the extent of their injury. The list is long of players in NFL history who have suffered permanent, life-changing physical damage from multiple head injuries during their careers, including such well-known players as Junior Seau, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman.
Fortunately, things are beginning to change in the NFL toward rules and regulations designed to protect players, to some extent, from head injuries sustained during the game. The NFL has instituted rules of play that penalize and/or fine players for illegal or unnecessary hits on defenseless players. Penalties exist for leading with your helmet when tackling an opposing player, grabbing the facemask of an opposing player, or tackling by “horse-collaring” the opposing player. While no system is perfect, these rules are in place to deter players from engaging in practices that have been shown to cause head injuries. The problem is, players, like Davante Adams, keep getting hit with head-to-head injuries, and the player who makes the hit is hardly punished. The NFL must step up its enforcement.
Of course, a system of rules is only as good as the enforcement and follow-through of those rules. Penalties are often not enough to stop players from illegal contact. Fines are often not meaningful to players who earn millions of dollars a season and a one-game suspension is not harsh enough to deter players from giving these hard hits. However, no system of rules can guarantee that head injuries won’t occur during a football game. Football is a violent game. It is a certainty that players will receive head injuries due to the nature of the game. To respond to this, the NFL has put in place a concussion protocol for any player who suffers head trauma during a game. A player who is hit in the head during a game must go through a series of tests to determine whether he has a concussion before he is allowed to go back into the game. If the player is removed from the game, they remain in the concussion protocol until they can pass the tests and be cleared to play again. Players often miss multiple weeks due to head injuries.
In addition to efforts toward protecting currently injured players, the NFL, due to lawsuits, now has a settlement in place for players whose careers are over, but are now suffering the delayed effects of head concussions during their careers. Through a fund set up by the NFL, former players are now able to receive medical intervention for disabilities caused by head trauma from football.
It is great to see the NFL taking concussions seriously by beginning to forbid players from playing if they have a concussion. The protocol is very tedious and ensures players do not go back onto the field until they are completely healthy. It is also great to see the NFL taking care of its retired players that are dealing with post-career problems such as CTE. However, where is the punishment for players who give out these unnecessary hits? Davante Adams was hit with two helmet-to-helmet hits this year, once by Bears’ linebacker Danny Trevathan, and most recently by Panthers’ linebacker Thomas Davis. The NFL initially suspended Trevathan two games, but after appeal, it was reduced to one game. Same goes for Davis. He was initially suspended two games, but after he appeals the suspension it will also most likely be reduced. Rob Gronkowski was also only suspended one game after he dove on a player after the play was over and gave the guy a concussion. This is only three examples from this year, and there are much more that could be criticized as well.
At least they are consistent, right? But, a one-game suspension is simply not enough punishment if the NFL wants these types of hits out of the game. I am glad to see the NFL is doing more to care for concussions, but there is so much more they could do to prevent the injuries from happening in the first place. The culture of the NFL also needs to change from one that encourages players to lay the biggest hit on a guy to one in which players are acknowledged for avoiding unnecessary roughness on other players. Will the NFL ever be concussion free? Probably not. But they certainly need to send a bigger message to players that lead and hit with their head, or there won’t be anyone left to play the game that us fans love to watch and celebrate.