Addressing the Concussion Epidemic in American Football

By: Adia Sykes

If America’s favorite past time is baseball then coming in at a close second is the fast-paced, hard-hitting game of football. Seventeen weeks and a grand total of 256 games comprise the regular season playing period in the National Football League (NFL). For those weeks football fanatics sit with their eyes glued to a field or television screen, keeping track of win-loss records, and waiting on bated breathe for their favorite teams to advance into the post-season playoffs. However every week fans watch players get carted off of the field with suspected head injuries—the solemn consequence of a game as physically and emotionally charged as football. Players across all thirty-two teams in the 2013 NFL season amassed a total of 152 concussions according to the league’s official injury report. With such a high number of head injuries being recorded per season, players, coaches, and fans are left wondering what exactly the governing body of football, the NFL, is going to do to address this long-standing concussion epidemic.

In the past decade the plight of NFL players and their brain injuries have become the center of attention for players, their families, and medical professionals alike. The year 1994 marked the beginning of the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee. However, the issue of concussions was pushed to the backburner in order to leave room for more immediate injuries such as broken bones and problems of drug/steroid use. In the years that followed NFL executives would continue to turn a blind eye towards the brain damage plaguing its players, despite numerous incidents of players suffering temporary memory loss and blackouts after major hits on the field. It wouldn’t be until 1999 that the concussion epidemic began to move into the spotlight. That year, the NFL Retirement Board ruled that Mike Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chief, was permanently disabled “as a result of head injuries suffered as a football player.”

Research in the years following the 1999 NFL Retirement Board ruling would support the hypothesis that there is a correlation between football and extensive brain injury. In 2002 Dr. Bennet Omalu examined Mike Webster’s brain and discovered the first evidence of a brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), evident in football players. As a consequence, the brains of football players would continue to be studied and similar evidence connecting brain damage as a direct result of hits during football games would be amassed. With such scientific evidence, players and their families began to consider the NFL’s role in preventing brain injuries and compensating players for such neurological damage.

PBS’s “Concussion Watch” has been tracking this epidemic since the 2012 season. In this time they have discovered that an alarming one-third of all head injuries are omitted from official NFL medical reports and oftentimes players return to games without any missed playing time. Despite this malpractice involving omitting details in players’ medical histories and this lack of proper treatment for head injuries, 2009 proved to be a year in which the governing body of football was forced to open its eyes to the concussion epidemic. Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers Jr., declared that the committee would be holding hearings on the impact of head injuries sustained by NFL players. As a result of this pressure from Congress, the NFL implemented a series of rules changes with the sole intent of reducing the risk of concussions. Since these new rules have been in place, the effects have yet to be seen. The NFL reported a total of 129 concussions in 2010–the first full season in which these new rules were put into action–and the figure has yet to fall below that number.

In 2013 more than 4,500 retired NFL players, ten of who, are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, accused the league of covering up the link between brain injury and professional football. The plaintiffs in the case sued the NFL for an average of $150,000 in medical benefits and injury compensation, a fund for medical research on brain injury, as well as litigation fees for players. United States District Judge Anita B. Brody presided over the cases in Philadelphia. If the settlement is approved, the NFL will pay $765 million for the aforementioned demands. Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated provides a breakdown of this lawsuit and the proposed allocation of this $765 million in his 2013 article entitled “NFL, Retired Players Reach $765 million Settlement in Concussion Lawsuit.” The most recent development in this lawsuit occurred in January of this year. Judge Brody denied the preliminary motion to settle the case. In her ruling she stated a concern for the lack of documentation regarding the fairness of the final monetary figure, and whether the players involved would be diagnosed and paid properly based on their claims. Only following continued negotiations and discovery procedures will it become clear whether or not the NFL will be forced to pay an unprecedented settlement amount.