Concussion in Football: The Scourge That Taints American Football

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On the surface, America’s national pass time, football, is about entertainment. However, it’s hazardous to the players, as evidenced by concussion studies and the health risks players are exposed to after their careers end.  

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Concussion in football is high due to the amount of physicality involved in the game. We’ve seen prolonged stoppages after a player goes down, some having to be stretched off, leaving everyone on the edge of their seats, hoping for the best. 

When Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was allowed to play after a major hit, former and current players and health experts raised questions about the NFL’s handling of concussion. 

In this post, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about concussions in football and why it’s a serious matter.

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Frequency of Concussion in Football

Concussion in Football: The Scourge That Taints American Football
NFL Players lining up for a game. Photo by Mike Benson on Unsplash

Concussion in football is common with players tackling each other and going down under high impact. According to NFL injury data since 2015, the number of concussed players rose and fell with the highest numbers registered in 2015 at 275 and the least in 2020 at 174. In 2023, 219 players suffered concussions in pre- and during the regular season. 

That said, these numbers only account for the head hits that result in concussion and not ones that go undetected but may still present future health challenges. 

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The Impact of Repetitive Hits to the Brain

CTE in football. Video Credit: Los Angeles Times

NFL players experience repetitive head injuries, which may result in structural changes causing traumatic brain injury. You’ve probably heard someone say that they “saw stars” after a severe hit on the head. 

This is because the brain gets stretched and you lose consciousness and can even suffer from headaches, among other symptoms.

When this happens constantly, as is the case with NFL players, it can trigger chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A CTE brain has an accumulation of tau, a protein thought to be dislodged from the brain’s fibre, and clumps on the brain’s tissue, interfering in information flow. Symptoms of CTE include:

  • loss of consciousness
  • Dizziness
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Aggression 
  • Impulsive behavior.

Doctors previously diagnosed boxers with CTE and referred to it as dementia pugilistica.ermed dementia pugilistica. For the NFL, the first studies around CTE came out in the mid-2010s when former player Fred McNeil’s brain was scanned after his death. 

This prompted more research into the matter and the case has only gotten stronger. According to Boston University, 345 out of 376 or 91.7% of former NFL players have CTE. Researchers found that convicted murderer and former NFL player Aaron Hernandez had CTE, which was said to be the worst for a person of his age, 27.

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The Rate of CTE in NFL Players Remains Unknown

NFL concussion crisis. Video Credit: Vox

Even though studies have been done, it’s difficult to know how many former and current players have CTE. 

Medical professionals can only make a diagnosis during an autopsy, and frequently, the deceased football players voluntarily donate their brains to science. Even then, the cases are alarming enough to warrant safety checks to be put in place by the NFL.

A study done by JAMA Network showed that out of 202 former football players, 177 of them had CTE. The severity depended on the amount of time they played. That said, it is crucial to remember that CTE is not present in every NFL player, but their chances of developing the condition are higher. 

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College and High School Players Are Also at Risk

People mostly talk about concussions in football in the NFL, as it’s the pinnacle of the sport, but college and high school football players are also at risk. 

According to the Brain Injury Research Institute, football is the leading cause of concussions in high school sports, resulting in 60% of all concussions.   

There’s also the risk of beginning play early. A study by Boston University shows that players who get into football before the age of 12 are at higher risk. When you hear the likes of Barack Obama and sports stars like LeBron James and Terry Bradshaw stating they won’t allow their kids to play the game, then you realize how serious the issue is. 

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NFL Safety Mechanisms

The NFL has come under scrutiny for turning a blind eye to concussions. They repeatedly denied the long-term impact it had until 2009 when the former NFL spokesman Greg Aiello admitted that the studies were right. 

Over the years, they’ve implemented safety protocols for teams that wouldn’t allow concussed players to return to action unless they’re fully recovered. The five-step protocol involves:

  • Symptom Limited Activity
  • Engaging in aerobic exercises
  • Football-specific exercises with a coach. All these are no-contact.
  • Club-Based Non-Contact Training Drills
  •  Full Football Activity / Clearance

Additionally, helmet-to-helmet hits are banned, kickoffs are safer, and limited contact is allowed in training. Take note that while this article focuses on American football, sports like soccer, boxing, wrestling and rugby present such risks. 

Concussion in football continues to be a huge discussion and with every season passing and athletes suffering huge knocks, the pressure will continue to mount for more safety. No fan, teammate, or team owner wants a player to die on the pitch or suffer in retirement, so as we enjoy the fun, let’s remember the underlying risks and act accordingly.   

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