Keeping your Head in the Game

Sports are very physical, but none more so than the National Football League. Many players have felt the brunt a bone crushing hit every single game. A prime example is the Chicago Bears Hall of fame quarterback Jim McMahon, who spent 15 years in the league, and now is in a battle that is much harder than avoiding defensive ends or throwing a game-winning touchdown. At just 55 he has dementia, a condition that affects short-term memory and can sometimes lead to Alzheimer disease. It is believed his condition is due to multiple blows to the head during his playing career.

In an interview with Espn in 2012 McMahon said, he knows he suffered at least three concussions that were undiagnosed.  He now must deal with things like walking in the kitchen for a snack and two minutes later having to ask what was he doing here. Or erasing messages because he thought he would call them right back, but forgot only a few minutes later. Those are just a few things he now has to deal with because head injuries were not taken seriously in his era of football.

McMahon took a vicious hit in a game against the Green-Bay Packers that he said should have paralyzed him, it didn’t but he was woozy and was diagnosed with a concussion, he came back in the game after halftime because the trainer said it had gone away. McMahon will always have to deal with these issues because the NFL neglected to put the players’ safety at the top of the list during that time period. McMahon had a brilliant career, but said if he could do it over, he would play baseball. That’s a strong statement from a Pro football Hall of Famer. He has also contemplated the extreme measure of taking his own life because he could not take the daily struggles (Espn).

McMahon is just one of many heart wrenching stories of former NFL players dealing with the effects of hits to head. Others who deal with this debilitating condition include Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau and Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.  Seau took his life in 2012 because he couldn’t deal with the struggles anymore. These are tragic situations the NFL will never be able to forget and why they have worked tirelessly in recent years to make the game safer for this generation of players.

The NFL paid the price for their neglect in the early days when over 5,000 former players and their families came together to sue the league. They have been working on a settlement for the better part of three years and looks like it will be finalized at some point this year. The result is, the NFL will pay 1 billion dollars in retribution to the players and will also cover over 20,000 newly retired athletes (NFL Concussion). Some feel they should have to pay more, but I feel this is a wake- up call for the NFL. It’s the reason they have taken the appropriate steps to make it safer, granted it will not give the families that have experienced tragedy their love one back or feel like themselves again, but their voices were heard and changes are being made (NFL Concussion).

On the field the NFL has changed a few rules that have made the game safer in recent years. Some of those include, players not being allowed to lead with the crown of the helmet, if they do, they will be penalized 15 yards during the game and possibly be fined by the NFL. The penalty will depend on the severity of the hit. This rule has forced players to learn how to tackle all over again, but has made the players aware the league is taking serious definitive steps to curb this issue (Breslow). Another key rule that has been adopted is, moving the kickoffs back from the 20 yard-line to the 25-yard line. While it doesn’t seem like much, it makes a huge difference because kickers legs are so powerful most of the time they kick it out of the back of the end zone eliminating the chance for the returner to get hit at all. Before this change, it was one of the most dangerous plays because the whole team is chasing after one person making the hits even more bone crushing than every other play in the game.

Statistics show that things are trending in the right direction for the NFL as it is reported that concussions are down 25% in 2015 with just 111 concussions during the 2014 season. Those numbers are down from 148 in 2013, and 173 2012. A 36% decrease in that three-year span and a marketable improvement over the early years (Concussions down). Despite what these numbers say, there have been five current NFL players hanging it up early because they were afraid of head injuries. Those players are Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Jake Locker, and Jason Worlds. The oldest player in that group is Patrick Willis at 30- years of age. The youngest is Chris Borland at the age of 24.

This just shows that no matter what the NFL does, injuries are going to happen and sometimes head injuries. Although it is one of the most physical sports in the world, it’s not touch football and they are going to happen. The players know that when they start in pee wee football its just the nature of the sport. It also has a lot to do with the position you play. If you play quarterback you are at the center of the action with the ball in your hand almost every play and therefore you’re subject to countless hits. However, if you are a kicker you are on the field for the least amount of time and all you have to do is kick the ball. At that position you don’t have to deal with the rough and tumble aspect of the game as much, making head injures less likely. Some good advice would be to choose your position wisely.

The reality is the NFL is a contact sport and things are going to happen. Players have to realize there is a risk. The NFL works everyday to make the game safer and pay the players they neglected in the early days. It is a difficult balance to maintain the authenticity of the game and make the changes needed. They have done that. The NFL is still one of the most popular sports in the world.


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