Like all responsible organizations, the NFL owes its players safety
Panthers fans might recall captain Luke Kuechly’s gruesome head injury last season against the New Orleans Saints in Week 11. After an awkward collision with fellow linebacker Thomas Davis, Kuechly was carted off the field, giving way to this showing him crying uncontrollably and apparently struggling to breathe.
Fans were quick to note his “passion for the game” and comment on how devastated he must have been, knowing he’d likely be out for the most critical part of the season.
However, the real reason Kuechly was in tears was much more unnerving than the thought of spending a few games on the sideline. Luke had been hit so hard in the back of the head that he was experiencing emotional incontinence. Also known as pseudobulbar affect, the condition can be brought on by a traumatic brain injury and is characterized by uncontrollable laughing or crying.
The fact that Kuechly’s emotional display was universally misdiagnosed as “his love for the game” indicates just how deep in denial the general public is when it comes to football-related head trauma. Despite glaring evidence of the sport’s concussion problem, the league’s officials, coaches and doctors alike continue to downplay the gravity of the issue.
In July, a harrowing New York Times report on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football began:
“A neuropathologist has examined the brains of 111 NFL players – and 110 were found to have CTE.”
John Urschel, known for being one of the smartest players in the league and for pursuing a PhD in mathematics in his spare time, retired two days after the Times report was released. Urschel joined a slew of high-profile players retiring relatively early in their careers, including Calvin Johnson, Patrick Willis and Jarod Mayo in the last three years.
President Obama even chimed in on the topic during his second term in office, claiming he’d never let his son play professional football. He likened the willingness of NFL players to take the field despite the warning signs to the behavior of smokers.
The league was rocked in 2012 when two former players, Ray Easterling and Junior Seau, died from suicide a month apart from each other. Neither had been diagnosed with CTE, but the National Institutes of Health later identified the degenerative disease in both individuals after they died.
In a statement released following Seau’s death, the NFL said, “We have work to do, and we’re doing it.”
Even with all this work being done, the league did not formally acknowledge the existing link between football and degenerative brain disorders until 2016.
When asked about the mounting scientific evidence in a White House roundtable, Senior Vice President for Health and Safety Policy for the NFL Jeff Miller admitted, “The answer to that is certainly, yes.”
While the NFL is at the forefront of the investigative lens, college football is not without its fair share of devastating hits, nor is the conversation on the topic any less ambiguous one tier down from the pros.
A 2014 study found that “college football players reported having six suspected concussions for every one diagnosed.”
The study, conducted by researchers at Boston University and Harvard University, also found that coaches’ perceived disapproval of players reporting concussions was directly related to how frequently players “played through” suspected concussions.
UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center on campus, claimed, “We do not have a concussion crisis,” adding that the public is often misinformed on the subject, and football is not the only cause of CTE.
Considering the NFL is apparently more concerned with its players kneeling during the national anthem than its troubling pattern of head injuries, players must take matters into their own hands if they want to protect their brains.
For Kuechly, this means wearing the Q Collar, a revolutionary medical device modeled after the physiology of woodpeckers and designed to prevent concussions. The collar works by pressuring the jugular vein, limiting blood flow out of the skull cavity and effectively providing a cushion against hard hits.
Kuechly is the first NFL player to wear the collar. The manufacturer of the Q Collar has stayed out of the media for the time being. Perhaps companies would be quicker to develop such devices if the league were less repressive towards discussion of the issue.
Unfortunately, there are not many ways to change a company as large as the National Football League. The only thing that matters to an entity like the NFL is viewership, and most of us who think the organization’s priorities are backwards, like most of the editorial board, will still be watching every Sunday.