Deflated Brains: Concussions in the NFL

By Kristen Drummey, Behavioral Neuroscience, 2016

Football season is back, and with it comes some familiar things: tailgating, hot wings, and debilitating head injuries. Football is a violent sport by nature, and some consider injuries, most notably concussions, to be an unavoidable part of the game. In recent years, tragic incidents and pressure from athletes have forced the National Football League to attempt to reduce the amount of head injuries suffered by their players, but their attempts, half-hearted at best, are likely not doing enough.

Although the NFL has come under particular fire recently for concussions suffered by their players, head injuries can occur across almost every sport. Any high contact sport, especially football, boxing, hockey, and rugby, can significantly increase the chances of an athlete suffering from a concussion. Concussions are caused by violent shaking or a hit to the head, and cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea, confusion, fatigue, or even blacking out. As sporting organizations become more aware of the impacts of concussions, players who suffer a significant hit to their head during a game are often quickly escorted off the field. However, smaller hits to the head may not produce a full concussion with concussive symptoms. These subconcussive hits can also cause damage to brain tissue, and are harder to pinpoint and treat.

For some athletes, concussions don’t have much of an effect other than their immediate symptoms. For others, years of getting hit on the head can build up into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE gradually degenerates brain tissue through a buildup of protein, much like other neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. This disease can develop years after mild brain injuries, and comes with debilitating symptoms such as impaired judgment and impulse control, and increased depression, aggression, and dementia. Unfortunately, the only way to currently diagnose CTE is post-mortem by examining the levels of tau protein built up in the brain.

The CTE Center at Boston University recently found that 87 out of the 91 brains of former NFL players that they tested were positive for CTE. Players who have tested positive post-mortem for CTE include Dave Duerson, Jovan Belcher, and Junior Seau. Belcher, a former linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend before killing himself, and was later described as having erratic and unusual behavior leading up to this tragic event, one which also sheds light on the severity of the NFL’s domestic violence problem. Duerson, formerly a player for the Chicago Bears, and Seau, a Hall of Famer best known for his time with the San Diego Chargers, both committed suicide in such a way that their brains could be examined for CTE, which both suspected they might have.

Concussions and their subsequent effects are obviously a serious problem for the NFL, one that has become literally a matter of life and death. While the league has recently improved their efforts to combat concussions, they have had a checkered history with concussion research and treatment. The Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee was created by the NFL over twenty years ago to investigate the effects of head injuries on players, but continued to deny that so-called mild head injuries lead to brain damage in the long term.

In response to new research and lawsuits from former players, the NFL has finally begun to change its policy on concussions. Penalties for hits to the head and efforts to reduce kickoff returns have impacted the number of concussions reported for the league. However, from 2011–2013, there was still an average of 247 concussions per season. Often, players who have suffered concussions return to play the next week, even though there is a higher risk of repeating the injury up to ten days after the initial concussion. With no definitive guidelines as to playing after a concussion, other than that a player can’t return to play the same day, it’s difficult for players to know when it’s safe for them to start playing again.

The NFL as an organization has its fair share of problems, including how it handles the injuries of its players. As people and players learn more about how concussions can cause long-term brain damage, the league will have to hold itself accountable. Football is undoubtedly a true American pastime, but it can’t continue to thrive without making player safety a top priority.

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