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The National Football League has been around for almost a hundred years and has been America’s favorite sport to watch. Parties, bars, and garages are filled with people glued to a television screen. They cheer on the nation’s finest players and watch teams compete against rivals. The revenue the sport yields is a significant part of why these players make millions. But despite the fame and media popularity, are these players mentally healthy? Fans attend games and always anticipate a big hit, yet seldom think about the consequences this gradually imposes on the players. Over time, the head-to-head contact damages tissue in the brain and can cause a range of different issues. Has the league taken action to minimize the damage inflicted on players in this gruesome game? After some stumbling, the NFL finally stepped in and decided it was time to act. These changes ranged from referee training and gear improvements to the introduction of over a dozen new rules. The purpose of these changes was to keep players safe and foster long-term, healthy relationships for the athletes.
Almost a decade has passed since an NFL star took his life after suffering from serious health problems. Junior Seau was a powerhouse who played in the early 2000s and was known for his stunning hits. While fans were captivated by his performance, no one was aware of the pain he was experiencing. The day of his death, his family believed it to be accidental and had no suspicions of suicide. After numerous head injuries and concussions, Seau became increasingly susceptible to brain pain. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that begins in the brain and progressively worsens with age, was a key factor in this pain. When doctors examined his brain tissue, they discovered that he was suffering from a brain disease. The amount of damage in his brain equated to two decades’ worth of physical head contact. Dr. Russell Lonser noted, “Patients with CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, display symptoms such as impulsivity, forgetfulness, depression, and sometimes suicidal ideation.” Following the analysis, many questions arose about the treatment of NFL players and the support they receive. Gina, Seau’s wife, revealed, “A lot of things, toward the end of his life, patterns that we saw and things that worried us, it makes sense now.” Considered “unrealistic” in his Hawaiian culture, which values happiness, the tragic death of Junior Seau prompted the NFL to take head injuries more seriously and implement necessary changes.
How it works
Understanding this issue may be difficult for both players and fans. The first thing we must consider is the health of professional athletes. Do we want to see them in the league for two decades, or just for three years due to a career-ending injury? The enforcement of new rules has decreased the injury rate by more than 45%. The remaining percentage is attributed to non-head injuries. In most cases, players don’t fully understand the new rules until they experience an injury firsthand. Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson said, “I understand it, just trying to get everybody on the same page. I don’t want to see anybody hurt, hurting their head or their neck.” This press conference happened a week after his own concussion protocol.
Although many athletes support the rule and understand it, a few are extremely upset about the change. San Francisco’s defensive back Richard Sherman states, “There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle. Even in a perfect form tackle, the body is led by the head. It will be flag football soon.” The helmet-hitting rule was enacted less than two years ago before Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury leading to lower body paralysis. During a press conference between the Steelers and fans, they brought up the issue in Shazier’s hit. The Steelers are definitely suffering without Ryan this season, and it has affected the Steelers’ defensive tactics. Pittsburgh’s reporter Bob Labriola states, “Those collisions are what the NFL is trying to eliminate.” Coaches and general managers across the nation are teaming up to understand new tackling techniques on how to keep the game safer.
Over the past couple of years, I have observed and experienced firsthand how the NCAA and NFL are teaming up with doctors to make this game safer. Rich McKay, a Competition Committee Chairman, announced, “I felt it was time to make the change in order to better enhance player safety.” Since 2002, forty-seven new rules have been enacted to teach safe practicing, tackling safety, injury protocol, and immediate medical assistance. The improvement of practice methods, education on the subject matter, and specific medical personnel to treat a player with certain protocol has made a huge difference in the safety of the game. Even if a player comes off the sideline a little dizzy, the medical staff will not hesitate to take him to the locker room and run diagnostics to make sure he is safe for further gameplay.
The NFL approved a variety of regulations that broaden the helmet-hitting rule, making it easier for a player to receive a flag. The severity escalated from a fifteen-yard penalty to an automatic suspension and disqualification from the game. If a player believes he was hit illegally and intentionally, he can file a lawsuit and sue another player for breaking the rules. The importance of the rule has definitely resonated with teams across America. Players are more cautious as they make tackles and are aware of the consequences if they perform illegal hits. Coaches believe that this rule must be followed because losing a player to a foul can minimize their chances of victory. “I think I understand it. Our team looked at probably 25 plays last night. And I think all of us could see those plays, and why they were called,” said Bill Belichick. The New England Patriots’ head coach understands the new rules and abides by them religiously. Understanding regulations and keeping players informed explains why Belichick has led the Patriots to fifteen division titles.
Although there’s not much you can change about a contact sport, the NFL has done a tremendous job working to make the game safer. They have gone through extensive research with medical teams, sports equipment corporations, and referee training to ensure these players get back to their families safe. Jim Avila on Seau’s research says, “The NFL has said it did not intentionally hide the dangers of concussions from players and is doing everything it can now to protect them.” After the tragic death of Seau, the NFL responded by incorporating new tackling and targeting rules that will force players to play less violently. Neuroscience research has studied players’ brains in pursuit of identifying problems before they emerge. Further scientific research has been performed to detect early stages of CTE, which will benefit the precaution and awareness of the players.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated that his core goal was to minimize violent targeting of defenseless players. He expressed that, “Our focus is how to take the head out of the game and make sure we’re using the helmet as protection, and it’s not being used as a weapon.” In the past couple of years, the league has funded $100 million supporting research in medical institutions to find new answers to these injuries and trauma. Teaming up with medical institutions was not the end of it. The NFL has created contracts with sports companies like Riddell and Schutt who are maximizing protection by making state-of-the-art helmets to protect against frontal collision impact. The helmets are tested in science labs and are simulated in game-speed contact. This allows engineers to fix any defects before helmets are put on during game day. The Commissioner hopes that the players will become more accepting of the rule and learn the reasoning behind it.
The NFL has been supportive and positive about the new research and the safety of their players. Players may be upset about it, however, it does not stop them from playing their game. Referees, coaches, and medical staffs are ensuring these players have healthy careers. The players are learning how to tackle smarter and play safe, meaning they will likely be playing professionally longer than past generations. Currently, a successful step is being able to find an answer to a player’s CTE level. Doctors have only been able to recognize signs of concussions and other injuries, however, they have failed to determine the extent of a player’s brain damage. Having the capability to distinguish CTE and treat it before signs of distress will lead to healthier lives for everyone.
As fans watching the game, we must do our part and support our players with the regulations they face. Regulations are not passed easily as they take time, analysis, and agreements to establish new rules in a professional league. The research I conducted on this new rule has clarified why these new regulations are substantial in preventing injuries and diseases such as CTE. The NFL has proven in eight different articles that they are doing an excellent job researching and protecting players from life-threatening injuries. It took time and trial like every scientific experiment, however, the NFL has taken major steps over the past decade to lessen brain injuries. The NFL has invested time, money, and morality into protecting these players as best they can. In the end, it is a physical sport and the league has significantly reduced brain injuries, meaning disasters will not reoccur.
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