By Seth Shapiro
The NFL and its critics are hoping that a recent concussion forum will usher in a new era of health consciousness that ultimately will make professional football safer for its players.
The Traumatic Brain Injury in Professional Football forum, hosted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine on June 2 in Washington, was called because of concerns that the NFL needed to do more to protect its players. After repeated congressional chastising, the league, with new co-chairmen leading the head, neck, and spine committee, believe it is poised for change.
Dr. H. Hunt Batjer and Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen were introduced as the new co-chairmen by the NFL in March after the former heads resigned amidst widespread discontent among players and football safety advocates. Dr. Ira Casson, one of the previous chairmen, came under strong criticism for his reluctance to acknowledge the evidence linking concussions NFL players suffered in games and later brain diseases they developed.
While no official policy changes took place at the forum, many potential alterations were discussed, according to coverage in The Baltimore Sun. Suggestions were made to limit offseason practice, to minimize the amount of hitting during in-season practice, and to educate players about the dangers of head-first tackling.
In addition, Batjer and Ellenbogen are hoping to institutionalize reform to overthrow the play-through-the-pain mantra that pervades the NFL and other sports. Batjer and Ellenbogen noted typical consequences that make players wary of leaving the field after an injury, including financial losses as well as reduced playing time even after recovery. The physicians suggested guaranteeing players the resumption of their roles on the team when they return from injury as well as financial incentives for players to report injuries.
Constantine Lyketsos, the head of the planning committee for the forum, said in a press conference that the gathering was called to focus on gathering scientific evidence regarding head trauma. Research is still needed to draw conclusions about the short- and long-term outcomes of head injuries suffered by NFL players.
Despite the attempts of the NFL to make football safer for its players, there are those that deny the feasibility of that goal. “It is fundamentally impossible to take the violence and brutality out of football,” former Super Bowl champion Dave Pear stated in an email. Pear believes that the NFL is “interested in limiting their liability from” the professional football players by conducting research and hosting forums that examine making the NFL safer. He called the recent forum a “[public relations] stunt.”
In an opening statement to the forum, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league was committed to using its position “to lead the way and have a positive impact” not only on pro football but also on the sport “at all levels.”
The culture that predominates in the NFL is often replicated by subordinate sectors of football, including collegiate and youth football leagues. The NFL hopes that its concussion forum and its own reform will spark awareness and similar change across all levels of football.
Concussions and head trauma are areas of concern for more than just the NFL. In addition to independent physicians and scientists who will contribute to the research, the forum also included attendance by military doctors. The same research that could help NFL players who suffer head injuries could likewise help injured soldiers.
This forum was the third of its kind the NFL has had since 1997, and much of the rhetoric has been heard before. In Goodell’s opening remarks to the forum, he said the NFL’s goal is “to make sure medical decisions always override competitive decisions.” This, however, was almost a verbatim repetition of his comments at the 2007 forum: “Medical decisions must always take priority over competitive concerns,” according to Training and Strength, a sports medicine magazine, which heralded the 2007 forum as “momentous.”
Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the players association, cautioned the NFL not to let a divide develop between promises made and the fulfillment of those promises. “We look forward to assuring that the shadow between what is said and what is done is as short as possible,” Mayer said at the forum. He also sternly told the NFL that change cannot be done by the players alone; the league must play a role.
For background, see Kenneth Jost, “Professional Football: Is the NFL doing enough to protect its players?,” CQ Researcher, Jan. 29, 2010.
Seth Shapiro, Cornell ’11, is a staff member of The Cornell Daily Sun and a CQ Researcher editorial intern for summer 2010.
By Seth Shapiro
Posted by Kenneth Jost on 6/15/2010 10:25:00 AM