Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler -- all starting quarterbacks who suffered concussions in the tenth week of this NFL season.
It's become all the rage over the past few seasons: head injuries.
For years, many of the game's former veterans have expressed how difficult their lives have been following their retirement from the game. This past summer, a group of over 2,000 retired NFL players filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, claiming the league withheld important information regarding head injuries from its players. Though the outcome of the lawsuit is still pending, the NFL has done little of late to help curb the onslaught of head injuries throughout the sport.
The problems surrounding concussions in football don't end at the professional and collegiate levels either. In high school football, over 67,000 concussions are reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What's more alarming is that the rate of concussed players actually reporting their injury is just 43 percent, meaning that, in actuality, another hundred thousand kids suffer head injuries every year and never report it. A troubling statistic for parents of young football players.
Unfortunately, the only way to effectively reduce the number of severe head injuries in football is to make drastic changes on a number of levels. While most levels of the sport have instituted rules that protect quarterbacks and prevent defensive players from making helmet-to-helmet contact, those leagues have offered little penalty for behaviors that often result in concussed players.
The NFL contends its top priority is player safety, but if it were truly serious about reducing the number of career and life threatening injuries, the league would begin by punishing offenders of its safety rules in manners more conducive with the potential results of their actions.
In other words: why should a player be disciplined with little more than a $20,000 fine for seriously endangering another player's health and livelihood?
How about a series of strict suspensions for those who choose to ignore the safety of their opponents? Every other sport offers significant ramifications for overtly violent behavior. The NHL suspended Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Raffi Torres 21 games for a brutal hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa in last year's playoffs. Torres' suspension accounts for a quarter of the next season (whenever that may be) -- a seemingly reasonable punishment that will force violent players to take notice.
Meanwhile, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison just a single game last year following his fifth illegal hit in three years. With such minimal disciplinary action, it's no wonder the NFL continues to have numerous offenders of its safety rules each week.
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If the NFL truly wishes to rectify this problem it would institute a system that emphasized the severity of these illegal hits. What about a loss of one game's pay for a player's first illegal hit? The league could then follow with suspensions of four and eight games for subsequent offenses, and finally, ban a player for life after a fourth offense. While such punishment may seem excessive, it pales in comparison to the damages being inflicted on the victims of these debilitating hits.
Of course another concern surrounding head injuries in football is the players' willingness to report their injuries to coaches and medical personnel. From an early age, football players are taught to shake off injuries and persevere, regardless of the circumstances. Because of these early lessons, players are far less willing to be removed from a game for evaluation. It doesn't help when one of the NFL's most recognizable stars, Brian Urlacher, reveals in an interview with HBO Real Sports that he would be inclined to lie to coaches if he ever suffered a concussion.
All in all, the entire system for dealing with injuries is severely flawed. Want more proof? Take a look at the league's history of dealing with its retired players. Many have suffered long-term disabilities as a result of their NFL service, yet the league continues to deny them medical care.
Such behavior makes it clear the NFL has no interest in the health of those that had the greatest impact in creating the $30 billion empire.
Regardless of how well NFL players may be compensated, the simple fact remains that they too are husbands, fathers, and sons. They have a responsibility to their wives and children. In the cases of Vick, Smith and Cutler, each has a family depending on them. While many may feel football players choose their occupation and must therefore suffer its consequences, no career should force someone to risk their ability to support and raise a family.
It's become more apparent than ever that concussions are creating a black eye on America's most popular sport. Now, more than ever, the NFL must set a standard for reducing the frequency of head injuries within the sport. What Goodell and company must understand is that they are responsible for setting the sport's precedents. The way the NFL goes is the way football goes.
On Nov. 15, Goodell addressed a few hundred in attendance at the Harvard School of Public Health, speaking about head injuries in the NFL. For the most part, Goodell spoke about his commitment to making the game safer; he addressed concussions, illegal hits, facemask fouls, and other concerns. In essence, though, Goodell continued along the path the NFL has been most loyal to: "protecting the shield."
For the sake of football players aged 4 to 40, it's high time the NFL dropped its narcissistic act and made significant changes to a game many players and fans have devoted a good portion of their lives to.
Until that day, however, football will remain a sport of non-stop, hard-hitting action. With every passing week, however, it will also become more closely associated with head trauma and brain damage. The NFL can address the issue, but until it actually instills rules of prevention, the league is essentially ignoring the problem.
Maybe Goodell should ask Major League Baseball how turning their cheek on that whole steroids thing panned out.
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