The NFL has had a bad year with brain injuries.
Several high-profile incidents caught the league ignoring its own concussion protocols and letting obviously concussed athletes remain on the field. One study found that 110 or 111 brains of former NFL players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Harsh criticism made the NFL change its own concussion regulations late in the season.
Now, the latest data shows the National Football League also saw a 16% increase in concussions during the last season.
In light of all of this, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, says the league recognizes the need for “immediate action.”
Speaking at a head, neck, and spine committee meeting in Indianapolis, Sills attributed some of the concussions from the past year to increased reporting, but also requires immediate action.
“It’s not OK to simply stand behind that and say, ‘Well, the numbers are going up because we’re doing a better job,’ he told a small group of reporters who were allowed to the session. “I think to me this is really a call to action to see what we can do to drive it down.”
Over the course of the meeting, the NFL identified three specific ways they intend to do this – making safer helmets, decreasing preseason concussions by identifying early season warning signs, and working with football operations on style of play.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the latest concussion statistics, however, remains largely untouched.
The recent data found that concussions during camp practices increased 73% from 2016. Some studies indicate these out-of-game concussions account for the majority of head injuries in the league. The NFL has yet to organize a concerted effort to negate these concussions that tend to occur away from cameras and spectators.
At the same time as the meeting, the NFLPA also distributed a 107-page medical playbook to players which seems to downplay the risk and severity of CTE. While offering suggestions on concussion prevention and recovery, it goes on to say the best course of action is to assume you do not have CTE – even if you are showing symptoms associated with the permanent neurodegenerative disease.
“The most important advice is not to assume you have a chronic, irreversible disease simply because you have symptoms,” the playbook tells players. “Consult an expert in this field who can do the comprehensive neurologic evaluation and studies necessary to determine your status and the best treatment for it.”
Overall it seems the NFL is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It wants to downplay the risk of concussions and CTE in public and appear to take an “aggressive stance” in public, but in private appear to recognize the issue is only going to get worse until serious action is taken.