In the aftermath of the massive $765 million settlement between the National Football League and the former players affected by brain injury, the NFL is looking good. Not only did they avoid a protracted legal battle that could have lost them billions, the league also managed to publicly show they care about their former players’ well-being without admitting to any wrongdoing.
But, the question lingers; what will football look like now? Will this settlement have a widespread effect on what football looks like, or will the league become less vigilant as the lawsuits fade into the past? According to the NFL reporter Judy Battista, the league has no intentions of easing up on brain injuries. However, talk is talk and a reporter for the NFL network isn’t exactly an unbiased source.
Battista has some great points. When the regular season begins Thursday night, there will be a new rule in place forbidding players from initiation contact with the crown of their helmet outside of the tackle box. There will also be neurologists on teams’ health care staff, and officials have been advised to err on the side of caution and safety. But, will it really change anything?
“This is not going away,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “The emphasis on these rules will continue. I just did training with our officials, and the message is we are going to aggressively enforce these fouls. We’re not backing off on the player safety part of it. That’s the priority. We have to keep them safe.”
The NFL follows the line of logic that football can be made reasonably safe from brain injury, and that players are willing to follow suit at the risk of their careers and financial stability, not to mention glory. While the NFL publicly promotes brain injury research and crafts rules that minutely change the game in favor of safety, there is still the institutional factor that the league makes money off of sending the strongest men possible crashing into each other.
With the continuous new research about traumatic brain injuries and concussions are published, it becomes increasingly clear the big hits aren’t the only ones that matter. So-called “sub-concussive” hits are racked up, and studies are suggesting they can accumulate into a degenerative brain condition over time. If this is the case, it will take a lot more than minor changes to tackling policy to truly protect athletes’ brains in the long term.
The bigger problem is one of culture. These athletes get to the top of the game by being the toughest, strongest, and least injured. Even the best player can have a career derailed by being out of play for an extended period, and more serious brain injuries can easily sideline a player for over a month. Even minor concussions are cause for players to be pulled from a game, but this just means a player won’t tell his coach if he is seeing stars, because in his mind it is better to be a team player, stay in the game, and protect his spot on the team.
You can see this part of team culture in the response to Dustin Keller’s terrible knee injury. Many players took the chance to proclaim they would rather have a knee injury any day, as they are less likely to see long-term consequences from it. If a player injures his knee, he has the opportunity to be treated properly and take the time to heal before returning to the field. With an invisible injury like a concussion, even when a player can feel they “aren’t quite right,” they feel the undeniable desire to get back onto the field and there isn’t a physical debilitation to stop them.
It would be hard to argue the NFL isn’t taking brain injury seriously these days. The lawsuits clearly got Roger Goodell’s attention, and everyone involved is more aware of the concussion issue. But, the league has a long road ahead, and eventually they will likely have to make some tough calls.