Future athletes will look back and wonder at how a sport could devastate so many lives. With changes in policy, new technology, personal stories, and a little luck, tomorrow’s young football players may never have to experience a brain-damaging hit to the head.
For decades, concussions were considered a minor injury—you got “dinged,” had your “bell rung,” or “saw stars.” Today, we know that concussion is a form of traumatic brain injury. It can be mild with temporary symptoms, but sometimes individual or multiple head hits can result in permanent, life-changing problems. Many times, the real damage isn’t seen until years later. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disorder caused primarily by multiple concussions. It’s symptoms mimic Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and can lead to an early death.
In 2013, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement of a lawsuit involving thousands of former pro football players who developed dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or CTE (although CTE can only be confirmed with an autopsy). The main issues are the concussions, of course, but also that the NFL knew about the link between concussion and CTE, but did not inform the players or make any changes in the way concussions were handled on the field.
Newly contrite, the NFL has adopted a new concussion management protocol. There is a head injury spotter in the press box, who watches players for signs of concussion—maybe imbalance, or continually shaking his head, or seeming disoriented. There are also doctors and brain trauma specialists on the sidelines, and testing experts in the locker room. All players suspected of having a concussion must be evaluated on the sidelines, and if the doctors there aren’t sure, the player is sent to the locker room for further testing. Any player diagnosed with a concussion is immediately removed from the game.
It remains to be seen how well the players are protected after the concussion, and how soon they will be sent back to play. But it’s a good start.