How the NFL can properly address concussions

The NFL should immediately institute an ultra-punitive system for helmet-to-helmet contact, modeled after world soccer’s game law of straight red card suspension.

It was revealed this week that former Tennessee Vol Jamal Lewis and three other ex-NFL players are suing the NFL over concussions. Among other claims, they argue that the league knew as early as the 1920s of the potential for concussions to harm players, and concealed the known dangers from coaches, trainers, players, and the public until June 2010 when the NFL publically acknowledged the health threats with warnings to players and teams. There are at least four other similar lawsuits against the NFL that include former players as plaintiffs. The worst-case scenario is that the potential collective liability of the NFL from these legal actions could threaten the viability of the league, akin to product liability lawsuits that have resulted in severe damages to many large companies.

There are two issues regarding the subject of concussions – how to protect the players who suffer concussions, and how to punish the players who cause them.

Protecting the victim

The history of NFL policy on this subject illuminates how tardy and insufficient the league has been, and still is, on protecting its players from concussions. It wasn’t until 2007 that the league first instituted guidelines for the ‘return-to-play’ decision. Originally, a player would have had to lose consciousness before a mandated rest was ordered. Now, players who merely show symptoms of concussion are required to sit out the remainder of a game (or practice session) and be analyzed by an independent neurologist before being allowed to return. In between now and the original policy, it got ugly for the league. In August 2009, NFL executives were heavily admonished at a House Judiciary Committee hearing for not taking more action. That embarrassment moved the bar from a loss of consciousness to just showing symptoms as the yardstick for the return-to-play decision.

Unfortunately, it was recently shown that the policy was not enough. Earlier this season, Pittsburgh’s defender James Harrison rammed his helmet to the head of Cleveland’s Colt McCoy, causing the young quarterback to suffer a concussion. Two plays later, McCoy was back on the field. It wasn’t until after the game that it was determined McCoy had suffered a concussion and thus should not have been let back into the game. After reviewing the incident, the league suspended Harrison for one game, who instead of apologizing, replied that the NFL should punish the Browns for allowing McCoy to return to the game.

Harrison was only half correct. As a result, there is now a new policy regarding the back-to-play portion of this incident. The NFL’s assessment found that McCoy was allowed to play because the Browns’ trainers were preoccupied with other injuries and thus McCoy wasn’t properly checked for symptoms. Now, a league-mandated independent trainer will observe all games and alert team training staffs to possible head injuries that should be immediately assessed. This refinement of the policy may significantly improve the chances against further damage to a player already having concussion.

Punishing the offender

It wasn’t until last season that the league began cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits. In today’s age, that seems incredulous that those with the power to address the type of contact most responsible for concussions waited until 2010 to install a system of punishment. The NFL’s vision was to impose large monetary fines, especially to ‘repeat offenders’, and suspensions for those continuing to commit illegal hits. Consider this year’s signature helmet-to-helmet hit of Harrison on McCoy.

The league considered Harrison’s football rap sheet when assessing the punitive options – five illegal hits to quarterbacks over the past three years. His lack of apology for his deed that rendered him suspended is symptomatic of the prevailing attitude of many players and fans – don’t take away the advantage of intimidation from the defender. In other words, don’t allow the league to ‘soften’ the game – players should know the risks of bodily harm when they step onto the field of play. I would guess that the league knows of this attitude very well – the fan base of the most popular game in the world, short of soccer, is also the most violent game in the world, and that violence plays a role in selling tickets and bringing viewers to the television.

Brown’s linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said of Harrison, “(He) is who he is and whether you fine him, you suspend him, he’s not going to change… That’s up to the Commissioner to handle it the best way he knows… He’s one of the guys that (is) going to live and die by the way he plays.” That, in a nutshell, is what the NFL is up against.

Clearly, the NFL needs to invoke suspensions much sooner that Harrison’s three years of illegal hits.

A solution

So, how should the NFL police this issue? Education of players, coaches, and all others associated with the game — including fans — is an absolute necessity. But the league must be punitive to the extent necessary to immediately make head-to-head contact a rare occurrence in the game and eventually eradicate it from football altogether. The NFL must therefore be ultra-punitive.

Taking a tip from world soccer could be the answer. Instituting a system of punishment similar to that of fouls resulting in straight red cards could produce the following scenario. Any hit ruled to be helmet-to-helmet (whether by yellow flag or by replay) should result in immediate expulsion of the offending player from the game and the following game. The status of ‘repeat offender’ should not be a prerequisite for this kind of punishment. Then, the NFL would decide, based on a number of factors, how many additional games — either one or two — should be added on to the automatic one-game suspension.

Many already argue against such punitive remedies, and even against any suspension, for fear of irrevocably changing the game of football. I agree, but obviously for a different reason. It would make a dangerous game significantly more protective of players, most notably the most important players (i.e., quarterbacks), from the most long-term damaging injury. In addition, some would argue that suspensions would spiral out of control to the point of being farcical. That implies that helmet-to-helmet contact is some sort of physical necessity or natural propensity.

Cleveland Browns’ center Alex Mack put the nail directly on the head of that argument when commenting on Harrison’s helmet-to-helmet hit on McCoy. Mack said, “You don’t have to use your head.”

The NFL must use its collective head to immediately do everything in its power to eradicate this most dangerous of plays from the game. If the league doesn’t invoke this strategy on its own, the courts may see to it that they do. And that will be a much more expensive and potentially damaging proposition. Immediately instituting a severely punitive system of game suspensions with additional financial penalties will soon make players understand that contact anywhere near an opponent’s head isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

The NFL must have the courage to do the right thing and do it now. And by doing so, the league would set an example for college and high school football to follow.

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