Traumatic Brain Injury and Football is an Ever Growing Dilemma

American football dominated television last season. In 2011, more than 200 million unique viewers tuned in to watch. NFL games were watched by 17.5 million viewers on average, a number that has not been seen since 1989 and the increased viewing options accompanying the explosion of cable television.

This value of the NFL and it’s players is growing, but issues regarding player’ health is shadowing its future. Specifically, brain injuries from the impact and collisions between players is having a serious, long-term effect on athletes. 

The Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III returned from a “mild concussion” this week and the continuing year-long absence of the Detroit Lions’ Jahvid Best highlights the issues facing the NFL and its players.

In 2009, NFL commissioner Roger Goodel and Demaurice Smith, a representative of the NFL Players Association, were taken to task during a congressional hearing on the topic of brain injuries in players. The practical effect was the adoption of several measures including increased player safety mechanisms, the use of independent neurologists to clear concussed players, and the hiring of independent on-field trainers to monitor game-day head trauma. Closed head injuries have become a mainstream topic as a result of the amount of lawsuits the N.F.L. has faced from former players.

The sad truth pertaining to the NFL is that they really don’t know how to deal with head or brain injuries. They are accustomed to the issues that follow knee, shoulder, ankle, and hamstring injuries. However, the brain doesn’t have a set of protocols to follow similar to orthopedic ailments. Unlike these other injuries, which are damage to one part of a system, the brain is itself a whole system that is damaged. In most cases it is difficult to identify an individual part of the brain that has been damaged.

The NFL has been proactive in identifying brain injuries, especially recently. Players are given a cognitive baseline test prior to the season. This test establishes a threshold for the individual player’s cognitive functions and guides medical staff in testing after a concussion.

Nevertheless, in a world that’s “pay for play,” players tend to intentionally perform poorly on the test, so as not to appear concussed when later tested. These players are less concerned with the pragmatic, long-term effects and more worried about receiving their million-dollar contract payment and playing. In a world where there are so many talented individuals and so few job spots, job security factors into one’s decisions.

Forced to face the long-term consequences, teams now worry about their future liability. Today’s players face contract language releasing teams from future liability related to concussions. In lieu of this language, teams may steer clear of players with a history of concussions or closed head injuries, since these players are more likely to suffer future and repeated trauma to the brain.

A number of people comment that there needs to be less focus on the results and more on prevention. They claim that helmet technology leaves substantial room for improvement. Alternatively, players are leaving helmets loose to prevent rotational neck injuries, but this results in more energy being transferred to the skull in the event of collisions.

The writing is on the wall about this issue: “Traumatic brain injuries in sports are serious and here to stay.”

Matthew A. Dolman, Esq., is a recognized Florida brain injury attorney who focuses much of his practice on representing individuals who have suffered a closed head injury as a result of an automobile or motorcycle accident.  For more information, contact the traumatic brain injury attorneys at Dolman Law Group for a free consultation and case evaluation. 

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