By Danika McClure
The National Football League has faced quite the off-season when it comes to press relations. For over a year now, news of Colin Kaepernick, protests, police brutality, race relations, and civil protest have dominated the national narrative. Little talked about, however, is the NFL’s new protocol for handling traumatic brain injuries.
In 2016, the NFL announced that “teams will be subjected to fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly the loss of draft picks if they fail to take players out of games after sustaining a concussion,” writes New York Times author Ken Belson.
These changes to protocol were significant, as for years, the NFL has come under criticism from doctors, players, and their families who claim that the league has neglected to address serious medical issues
that stem from injuries to the head. In recent years, the NFL has tried to rectify this, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits, and has also donated tens of millions of dollars hoping to develop equipment better suited for players.
Despite these changes, however, critics are still looking at the organization. As Belson writes, several players in the 2015 season faced severe brain injuries but were not removed from the game. Later, those same players were diagnosed with concussions or other severe brain traumas.
Before new NFL mandates, teams were not fined for violating the league’s concussion protocol, but today, the league and the union each appoint a specific person to monitor each game to ensure that players are tested for concussions if necessary. Teams who skirt these rules can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. And teams that leave players in for competitive reasons may be forced to forfeit draft picks.
It’s a decision that has been widely popular for players and their families, but of course, not everyone agrees.
Donald Trump for example, posited that the new concussion protocol indicates that the NFL has “become soft”, referring to concussions as “a little ding on the head.” While on the campaign trail, he also suggested that new protocols were “ruining the game.”
Regardless of Trump’s accusations, recent scientific studies indicate that these new protocols are warranted.
One study by the University of Michigan found that one in five teens had been diagnosed with at least one concussion before leaving high school. The proportion of injured students was much higher among teens who played high-contact sports like football. One in three students who participated in these activities reported being diagnosed with a concussion at least one time.
Similarly, a groundbreaking study by Dr. Ann McKee, published in The New York Times highlighted harrowing results. Looking at the brains of 202 former football players, McKee’s study indicates that 87 percent of them were found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative traumatic injury believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. Of the 111 respondents who played in the NFL, all but one were found to have the injury.
“This is the largest and most methodologically rigorous case series of athletes diagnosed with CTE ever published,” notes Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, regarding McKee’s study. “The fact that CTE was found in nearly all college and professional football players examined is not surprising, following previous publications, but serves as a reminder that CTE may be more widespread among football players than previously believed.”
The recent national narrative and debate surrounding Kaepernick is certainly important and newsworthy, but on a fundamental level, the NFL has been exploiting the labor of athletes for profits while at the same time not guaranteeing their safety on the job. In any other field, this lack of protection would be grounds for a lawsuit, and yet today, the NFL is still a powerful institution.
It’s unclear what the future will look like for the NFL when it comes to salvaging their PR efforts and protecting the athletes that make their profits possible. What is clear, however, is that a number of changes need to be made on multiple fronts.