Several recent reports have shown that the number of diagnosed concussions in high school and college sports have been quickly rising. But, this news is often seen positively. It is seen as a reflection of better awareness and identification of brain injuries when they happen, while many concussions have been completely ignored in the past.
With this context in mind, it is difficult to know what to make of the new announcement from the NFL that the number of concussions in the league has dropped across the board during the 2016 season compared to 2015.
The decrease was not dramatic – going from 275 to 244 – however, many are pointing to the 11% drop as a sign that the NFL’s concussion recent concussion-related rule changes may be showing promise. Is this the case, though?
While the NFL talks up its concussion protocol and safety-based new rules, those who have kept a keen eye on the sport this season may observe that the concussion protocol is regularly ignored by teams with little to no punishment.
In fact, just yesterday the NFL announced that the Miami Dolphins had broken the league’s concussion protocol during a game on January 8th. During the game, Dolphins quarterback Matt More was slammed onto the field during a play. He didn’t get up for several minutes.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) January 8, 2017
Under the protocol, any massive hit that leaves a player disoriented and immobile on the field should immediately lead to the player being removed from play for a concussion assessment – especially when bleeding from the mouth as Moore was. Instead, Matt Moore was back on the field one play later, having never undergone any concussion assessment.
Despite finding the team guilty of ignoring safety regulations, the NFL says there will be no actions taken to punish the team. Instead, they were given a warning that any “future deviation from the protocol may result in enhanced discipline, including monetary fines assessed against the club.”
This is far from the only case of a team ignoring concussion protocols with no discipline.
If the concussion policy has no teeth, teams are free to defy it at any time and allows players to put themselves at risk for more severe secondary injuries that could be permanent or life-threatening.
While there are questions about the effectiveness of the concussion protocol, efforts to raise awareness about the risks of concussions and repetitive brain injuries do seem to be having an impact. San Francisco 49ers co-chairman John York told Pro Football Talk that more players are proactively reporting concussion symptoms.
“We’ve seen an increased number in self-reported concussions this year over last year,” he said.
This could imply that while formal efforts from the league to “prevent concussions” may be ineffective, players are increasingly taking their health into their own hands and taking steps to protect themselves when necessary.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seemed prepared for apprehension when he released the report, saying “We know there is skepticism about our work in this area. That’s why both the process and results of our work will be shared with the medical community and the public at large.” So far, none of this information has been released.
It is also important to note that the number of concussions in the NFL in 2015 were a major jump from the previous year. From 2014 to 2015, the number jumped almost 32%.
At the end of the day, it is hard to know whether the decrease in concussions in the NFL is a true sign of concussions decreasing, an anomaly, a positive sign of players taking action to protect their brains, or a worrying sign that the NFL’s concussion protocol is allowing brain injuries to be overlooked on the field.