This summer, the National Football League (NFL) agreed to a settlement with retired players concerning the costs of on-the-job injuries, largely from repeated concussions. The lawsuit, filed by about 4,000 retired players, alleged the NFL wasn’t truthful with players about the long-term dangers of head injuries.
The NFL did not admit to any fault in the settlement, which was $764 million, to be paid out over 20 years. But pressure was mounting from Congress, the media, and high profile suicides and deaths of players suffering from neurological problems. After retired NFL player Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006, he was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is caused by repeated brain trauma, and can cause dementia, memory loss, and depression.
The NFL has a history of denying any problems with head injuries, and even followed a policy of sending players back into the same game after a concussion. Only after the evidence piled up against them – including more players with CTE and a finding that retired players suffered dementia at five to 20 times the average rate – did they recently reverse that policy.
Sadly, the NFL’s decades-long “be tough and play through the concussion” attitude has infiltrated high school sports. Several young athletes suggested they would continue to hide their concussions and keep playing.
High school and youth leagues tend to pattern their rules directly after the NFL. Even though the NFL has now reduced some of the contact during practices, youth leagues haven’t yet changed to keep up.
Critics point out that youth leagues need to step up to protect young players’ vulnerable brains. They could do this by:
- Enforcing safer tackling practices
- Utilize properly conditioned helmets
- Adopt safer rules without waiting for the NFL, such as requiring changes in kickoffs and new limits on head hits.
It remains to be seen how fully the NFL will enforce its new rules, but hopefully the changes will begin to show up in attitudes as well.