Oct 28 5:00 PM

What we talk about when we talk about football concussions

It's no secret that football injuries can be devastating. Whether you're a player, a fan, a passive viewer or a rabid fantasy owner, you know that the hard-hitting sport delivers brutal tackles almost as often as thrilling touchdowns, sometimes both on the same play. However, despite multi-million dollar lawsuits and hard-hitting documentaries on the subject, language and direction about the future of the safety of the game remains muddled.

Players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson are canonized as football legends for their big hits, so no one seems to know how to react when clear evidence is presented that the hard-hitting play that made them great also doomed them to a life of brain damage and suffering. Sports commentators continue to laud big hits with as much gusto as impressive offensive plays, and concern often only creeps into their voice if a player is knocked out cold or has to be carted off the field.

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards suffered a concussion in a 2008 game.
2008 Getty Images

Sure, it's dangerous, but we still love to watch. Sure, we love to watch, but we don't want our kids to play. Sure, we want our kids to play, but only if they're being safe.

The NFL, NCAA and Pop Warner leagues across the country are now taking steps to keep players safer from concussions and their long-term consequences, but is it enough? It's hard to find a consistent opinion on the problem when language is so varied.



"I'm really wondering if, at some level, every single football player has this."
-Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist and one of the forefront researchers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players

"Dr. McKee has now examined the brains of 46 former NFL players and 45 had CTE."
-"League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis," a PBS FrontLine documentary

"He said, 'If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.'"
-Dr. Bennet Omalu, recalling a conversation he had with an NFL doctor after publishing his findings on two former NFL players that Omalu had concluded suffered from serious degenerative brain disease



"Concussions, I think, is one of these pack journalism issues, frankly… The problem is it's a journalist issue."
-Paul Tagliabue, former NFL Commissioner, speaking on the league’s “concussion problem” in 1994

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue testifies before Congress.
2005 Getty Images

"The human body was not created or built to play football… I think the NFL has given everybody 765 million reasons why you don't want to play football."
-Former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson (1976-1988), referring to the NFL's $765 million settlement in a recent head injury lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players

"People like the violence… You watch a pro football game, and naturally the biggest cheers are for touchdowns. But the second biggest cheers are for a nasty hit."
-Pittsburgh sports reporter Stan Savran

"He was running a slant. I'm driving on the ball. There's a collision, and he's down. I really haven't watched the play, so I can't really tell you what happened. I was just going out there playing physical."
-Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, who knocked Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley out of a game in week 7 of the 2013 NFL season.



Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley is carted off the field during an October 20, 2013 game against the Cleveland Browns.
2013 Getty Images

"He couldn't move at the time. So I just told him, 'Just stay here, just lay here, don't move'…That look he had in his eyes, that was something that stuck with me. It really hurt me just to see him like that. My brother was out there on the ground."
-Green Bay Packers backup tight end Andrew Quarless on witnessing Finley's injury

“You are supposed to be tough. You are supposed to play through pain. You are not supposed to cry. We are taught that early on in the game as kids. Tough sport. Brutal sport. It’s like the gladiator. People want to see the big hits. They wind up on Sports Center. And as a player, you don’t want to admit you are injured.”
-Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, from Stone Phillips Reports


Former Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson rushes during a 1986 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


“Earlier this year, President Obama said that the NCAA needed to do more to protect its college football players who suffer concussions. Currently, the NCAA is involved in a lawsuit brought about by former college football players, who accuse the NCAA of not doing enough to protect its student-athletes. And there has yet to be any indication that the NCAA is close to implementing a standard policy for identifying and treating concussions that all of its member institutions can follow.”
-“Explore: College football concussion map”- America Tonight

"I think the overwhelming majority of athletes who have a concussion, they recover from a concussion. I  think there's a subgroup of athletes who either have a genetic susceptibility or they have repeated concussions or subconcussions and the brain has not gone into recovery mode and they become susceptible to long-term brain issues."
-Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer


Auburn running back Peyton Barber is wrapped up by Florida Atlantic linebacker Andrae Kirk during a game on October 26, 2013.
2013 Getty Images

"I think there's enough evidence out there that we have to take this seriously. The mechanism (that causes CTE), that's what's stupefying."
-NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline

"We did this because it makes sense, and in the absence of anything else, we cannot afford to wait for limits… I can't tell you it's the panacea for all issues or that there's a cause and effect. It was one of the steps to try to address it proactively. It's frustrating that others haven't followed suit because they don't have data."
-Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris on the league's 2011 adoption of full-contact practice restrictions

The Harvard and Yale football teams square off in their annual rivalry matchup.

"The committees that look at this don't want to make changes until they have specific data saying practice restrictions have this effect. We can't tell them and won't have that for years."
-Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris on the struggles to persuade other collegiate conferences to universally apply practice restrictions

"This is perhaps one of my biggest concerns and caught me a little off guard: the effectiveness of our educational outreach. Even if somebody is very knowledgeable of the situation, it doesn't mean behavior is going to change."
-NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline, on a survey of college athletes in which 43 percent reported hiding concussion symptoms in order to stay in a game.

"I happen to really buy into the philosophy with USA Football's 'Heads-Up' program, and as a society we say there are a lot of sports that have inherent risks, certainly not just football. If we as a society say, yes, we accept some risk from contact sports but we won't accept a culture that places unnecessary risks, I think we'll see a football that looks a little different but essentially a sport that's still following its rules."
-NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline



"Instead of reducing contact practice time, youth football leagues should focus on awareness and education about concussions. We believe that practice is when tackling technique can be taught and reinforced in a much safer environment than in games."
-Principal investigator Anthony Kontos, assistant research director for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center sports concussion program.

Over 3.5 million American youth play organized football.
2002 Getty Images

“This study demonstrated that some head impacts at this level are similar in magnitude to high-severity impacts at the high school and collegiate level."
-Research findings by researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomediacal engineering and Sciences. Researchers tracked about 120 youth football players age 7-18, measuring hits with accelerometers and mapping brain scans.

“The professionals have a players union to protect them, but in many ways, the athletes that need the most protection have the least formal protection… As you get earlier in age, the contrast is more striking.”
-Dr. Vernon Williams, a neurologist at the Sports Concussion Institute, which advises high school, college and pro teams on concussion protocol.

70% of American football players are youth league players between 6-13 years old.
2009 Getty Images

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