NFL must confront long-term side effects of concussions, educate players

The NFL attempted to address its concussion problem in a series of commercials that aired during Super Bowl XLVII. Unfortunately, that was the most substantive course of action the league has taken to warn players about the dangers associated with head injuries so far, and it was not nearly enough.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition that can result from repeated concussions and sustained head injuries. Its symptoms include early onset dementia, deafness and depression. Dozens of football players have been diagnosed with CTE following their careers.

While the issue has long been ignored, the suicide of former pro bowler Junior Seau in May 2012 publicized the danger CTE poses to football players. Speculation that Seau suffered from CTE was confirmed in January, when the National Institutes of Health performed extensive studies on his brain.

While much of the research on the effects of CTE is fairly recent, the NFL should be taking a more proactive approach to educating high school and college players about the health risks of a career in football. Colleges scout players when they are as young as 16 and 17, yet they make no effort to educate the players about what lies ahead. At this point, there is more than enough evidence to assert that a career in the NFL puts one at a heightened risk for symptoms associated with CTE later in life.

The issue looms large in the national conversation, too. President Barack Obama stated in an interview with The New Republic that, if he had a son, he would have to think “long and hard” about letting him play football.

During a Super Bowl pregame show, former NFL player Deion Sanders said, “The game is a safe game, the equipment is better.”

He went on to insinuate that players are playing up their symptoms in an effort to make money from lawsuits. Sanders’ logic ignores how concussions actually work. More advanced helmets with padding may protect against skull fractures, but concussions occur when brain tissue collides with the skull. No matter how sophisticated the equipment gets, the NFL is not going to curb its concussion problem. Only rule changes that would undoubtedly be highly controversial would do so.

The concussion problem has even caused some to doubt the future of the NFL. Baltimore Ravens player Bernard Pollard said that 30 years from now he doesn’t think the NFL will be “in existence.”

Jonah Lehrer, writing on Grantland.com said, “If the sport of football ever dies…It will begin with nervous parents reading about brain trauma, with doctors warning about the physics of soft tissue smashing into hard bone.”

The future of the NFL as we know it is uncertain. What is certain is that it is simply immoral to not educate young players about the long-term effects of concussions. If more young players were adequately educated, they could potentially be saved from the health problems facing countless players, both past and present.