Anyone familiar with the book League of Denial or the movie Concussion knows the NFL wasn’t exactly quick to embrace the possibility that head trauma in football carries risks so severe, they can be fatal.
To be fair, more recently, the league can be credited with rule changes and concussion protocol that have triggered positive changes in America’s favorite sport.
Last Friday, the NFL reported that concussions in regular-season games in 2015 soared by 58 percent — the most in four seasons — and revealed that helmet-to-helmet hits caused 59 percent more concussions over a year ago.
If a 25 percent decrease in concussions last January was greeted as good news — it was — this year’s numbers aren’t what you would consider savory appetizers for the Super Bowl.
Here’s where things get — excuse the choice of words — foggy.
See, in NFL terms, a drop in the concussion rate means the game is safer, the players are smarter and the rule changes are working.
An increase in the concussion rate can mean (ready?) the game is safer, the players are smarter and the rule changes are working.
Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chair of the NFL’s head, neck and spine committee, told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, “My belief is that this is not necessarily an increase in concussions suffered during games. We’ll see in the coming years if that’s true. I think overall we have lowered the threshold for diagnosis. We are much more erring on the side of caution.”
That’s undoubtedly true and maybe 2015 was merely a blip, but let’s remember that in the old days, there was no caution, so what are we comparing it to?
Then there’s Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, saying a year ago that he would tell parents whose kids want to play tackle football “there is no safer time” to do so.
(Here’s one word of caution: The difference between “safer” and “safe” is more than just one letter.)
(Here’s a second word of caution: A USA Today survey of 293 NFL players showed that 53 percent considered the game no safer.)
Miller attributes some of the numbers to self-reporting, saying there’s more of it happening today than ever before, which is probably true, although 1) There are no statistics kept to prove it; 2) That does nothing to account for the many thick-headed players who still believe sitting out a half is worse than remaining on the field with a concussion.
The league is quick to offer the phrase “change in culture,” but whether that concept is universally embraced is a question. A recent Associated Press survey showed that 61 percent of players are either not concerned about concussions or less concerned than they are about other injuries, such as wrecking a knee. Texans cornerback Charles James pointed out that “you can get a head injury from anywhere. A dude could sucker-punch me,” twisted logic that ignores that possibility a dude could get cold-cocked in a bar whether he plays football or not.
Clearly, quarterbacks and receivers are better off today than they were even a few years ago, before anyone gave much thought to the term “defenseless receiver.” But watch Sunday’s Super Bowl and count the number of times players lead with their helmets. It’s spearing, a term you still never hear. Sorry to say, the heads inside the helmets of those running backs and linebackers and linemen are just as susceptible to concussions as the ones of the defenseless guys making those one-handed receptions.