Mike the Mad Biologist

The NFL’s Concussion Conundrum

Wherein the Mad Biologist indulges in Compulsive Contrarian Disorder. There’s been a lot of talk about the National Football League’s new rules about concussions, which force a player to stay out of a game during which he received a concussion. On the one hand, this absolutely is the right thing to do: brain trauma ain’t cool.

On the other hand, I think this might increase the attempts to knock players unconscious. If you know that ‘ringing a player’s bell’ will get him tossed from the game, it’s open season on star players, especially on those players who have had concussions before. ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger will have a bullseye painted on his head. Worse, players other than quarterbacks are not protected by the referees. Any running back who is ‘stood up’–slowed down to the point where a second (or third, or fourth…) defender can blast him will now be hit even harder than before (and by my count there are already two good running backs out with concussions this season). While the league might be able to protect quarterbacks, they can’t protect everybody–it’s a contact sport.

I’m not sure what to do, since I think this stems from a deeper problem: players are encouraged to make the big hit, “the de-cleater” (which sometimes backfires, allowing the opponent to gain more yards*), rather than tackle and wrap players up.

Still, we can’t let players who have suffered brain trauma play.

I guess I’m not so good at this contrarian thing after all….

*Safeties, first and foremost, should not be trying to knock players out, but wrapping up–they are literally the last line of defense.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 5, 2009

    This is a very serious and troubling issue. My impression is that the more important health problem is not the fancy-ass skill players who suffer a countable number of overt concussions over their careers, but the linemen who suffer hundreds of cumulative brain-jarring collisions per season, and end up with severe degenerative brain disease after retirement.

    This is in large part an unintended consequence of the “improvements” in football protective gear, most importantly helmets. Because it no longer acutely hurts to smash heads and bodies together, collisions that impose large relative accelerations between the brain and skull are much more common.

    It is these relative motions that cause brain injury, not impact to the skull (which is all that helmets protect against). When players wore thin leather skullcaps, I suspect that they took care not to smash their heads together.

  2. #2 Brian
    December 5, 2009

    It is for this reason that I believe football rules ought to mandate form tackles, especially in high school and college football. There is simply no reason for unsafe tackling, as not only does it lead to greater risk for injury, but additionally I’m not convinced that it offers any defensive advantage.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 5, 2009

    Non-tackling collisions between linemen are much more cumulatively significant as a public health issue than unsafe tackling.

  4. #4 NewEnglandBob
    December 5, 2009

    Someone should knock some sense into these people.

    But seriously, an additional rule is needed:

    Anyone who gives a concussion to another, whether intentional or not, will be out of the game(s) for an equal length of time. They could even make it punitive: double the length of time.

  5. #5 Brian
    December 5, 2009

    “Non-tackling collisions between linemen are much more cumulatively significant as a public health issue than unsafe tackling.”

    Yeah, it seems you’re right. Not sure how to go about addressing that, as I think any attempts to increase the pain of contact would probably be a non-starter!

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    December 5, 2009

    Before you know it, American football may be in danger of the same tragic fate that befell tilting: regulated out of existence.

    Damn, I miss a good joust.

  7. #7 mk
    December 5, 2009

    Watching 300 pound men crashing full speed into one another will never go out of style.

    Bigger, faster, stronger… incidents of concussion will only increase. Oh well… on with the games!!

  8. #8 cm
    December 5, 2009

    Fwiw, I’ve had two female soccer students get concussions this term, and one of them twice. I find this really troubling.

    And yes, the football concussion thing is really a shame. The idea of entangling a sport with systematic brain injury is barbaric.

  9. #9 natural cynic
    December 6, 2009

    Anyone who gives a concussion to another, whether intentional or not, will be out of the game(s) for an equal length of time. They could even make it punitive: double the length of time.

    Not all concussions are clearly caused by one particular player, so if one occurs in a pile-up of three offensive players and five defensive players, how do you pick the guilty player. It might also be a dirty strategy for a third-string running back to fake a concussion to get a star linebacker out of the game.

    Several years ago a survey of elite track athletes showed that many of them would sacrifice years of life for gold medals, so the top athletes might rebel against these kinds of restrictions.

  10. #10 KeithB
    December 7, 2009

    Wire the helmets and shoulder pads into the athletic supporters and supply an electrical shock proportional to the force of the hit.

  11. #11 david
    July 12, 2010

    I assumed contrarian was simply someone who says “on the contrary.” To me this would be a good trait. But first a commenter and then PZ used the word differently from that. A check of definitions on Wiki et al says that contrarian, like cleave, has within it exactly opposite meanings. We are left to infer which is meant.

    And what would I mean by using the word? I would be thinking ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty little maidens all in a row.” I liked Polly put the kettle on too.

    Paul Krugman has said that contrarians are a sham. Then, to make matters worse for the word, wiki claims that there is a special usage in science that is different from ordinary usage. We are left to infer when we are “in science” and when not.

    So after reading about the word I thought that “in science” a contrarian must be a global warming denier. Lo, here on science blogs, surely “in science” we have the word used for a skeptic who says “on the contrary” which is the old and ordinary usage.

    Not complaining, just observing. When we use the word contrarian, people being what they are, we can be sure some will misunderstand us.

  12. #12 Youryu
    January 4, 2011

    Not all concussions are clearly caused by one particular player, so if one occurs in a pile-up of three offensive players and five defensive players, how do you pick the guilty player. It might also be a dirty strategy for a third-string running back to fake a concussion to get a star linebacker out of the game.

  13. #13 metin2
    January 4, 2011

    I’m not sure what to do, since I think this stems from a deeper problem: players are encouraged to make the big hit, “the de-cleater” (which sometimes backfires, allowing the opponent to gain more yards*), rather than tackle and wrap players up.

  14. #14 Oyun hilesi
    January 4, 2011

    So after reading about the word I thought that “in science” a contrarian must be a global warming denier. Lo, here on science blogs, surely “in science” we have the word used for a skeptic who says “on the contrary” which is the old and ordinary usage.

  15. #15 Oyun hile
    January 4, 2011

    On the other hand, I think this might increase the attempts to knock players unconscious. If you know that ‘ringing a player’s bell’ will get him tossed from the game, it’s open season on star players, especially on those players who have had concussions before. ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger will have a bullseye painted on his head. Worse, players other than quarterbacks are not protected by the referees. Any running back who is ‘stood up’–slowed down to the point where a second (or third, or fourth…) defender can blast him will now be hit even harder than before (and by my count there are already two good running backs out with concussions this season). While the league might be able to protect quarterbacks, they can’t protect everybody–it’s a contact sport.

  16. #16 David
    January 4, 2011

    Gregg Easterbrook has extensively covered this issue in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column at ESPN.com (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook/101026_tuesday_morning_quarterback&sportCat=nfl). He advocates for new helmet designs to reduce the probability of concussion on helmet to helmet hits. I would agree with his assessment. By the way his article is excellent reading and he has an extensive understanding of cosmology. He also writes for the Atlantic.