The gladiator roar has left football.
The crushing hit that once drew a crescendo of cheers and fist-pumps from fans now brings entire stadiums to eerie silence.
The American public realizes the dire circumstances when a player lies motionless after a spear-heading tackle. Brain trauma is the signature sports injury of the 21st century – an issue that resonates among tens of millions of fans and players across the country, from youth football to the NFL and other sports.
As a neurosurgeon who spent eight years co-chairing the NFL committee that developed the league’s concussion protocol and recommended rules changes to improve safety, I’ve seen increased awareness of the dangers of on-field concussions. But recent incidents have shown me that we still do not have effective policies in place to ensure that players are protected.
Just last month, the NFL revised its concussion protocol after Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage was allowed to return to a game after a hit left him visibly trembling on the ground. A rule was added calling for players who appear unbalanced or unable to stand after a hit to be sent into the locker room for an exam.
Then, in a playoff game this month, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled to get off the field after taking a blow to the head. He returned to play after being checked out on the sidelines. The NFL said it was investigating whether the protocol was violated.
These incidents send the wrong message to fans and parents. It’s time for the NFL to adopt a more conservative approach that errs on the side of player safety.
Some changes have led to notable improvements, from instituting penalties for head-targeting hits to moving the kickoff line up five yards to the 35-yard line. The league has added neurotrauma consultants to sidelines and athletic trainers in a replay booth to spot potential injuries.
More broadly, our committee worked with Jeff Miller, Senior Vice President for Health and Safety at the NFL, to get the Zachery Lystedt law passed in all 50 states, which requires that youth athletes and parents be informed about the seriousness of brain and spine injuries, and that any player suspected of having a concussive injury be removed from play or practice immediately.
Still, the NFL needs additional rules that will take the head out of the game and stronger penalties and fines for improper hits. In my view, all injuries involving suspicious helmet-involved impact that result in a stoppage of play – such as the hits on Savage and Newton – should require that the player be evaluated in the locker room, not on the sideline where exams are somewhat superficial.
The league’s concussion protocol can only work if the guidelines that dictate how players are evaluated and potentially removed from a game are based solely on best medical practices, not other factors.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make sports safer. Exercise and organized athletics are vital to healthy living and are critical in battling our nation’s real epidemic, which is obesity.Even in football-crazed Texas, work is underway to track and reduce brain injuries. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center is working with the state’s athletic governing body to assess the prevalence of concussions in high school and junior high school sports. Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is interested in creating a massive database for the same purpose.
But this will take time. In the shorter term, it is imperative that a system be in place to ensure that concussed players are identified quickly and removed from play to prevent potentially devastating brain damage. In a young person, whose brain has not fully developed, the consequences can be catastrophic.
NFL fans are watching – not just to see who wins the Super Bowl, but for leadership to make the sport safe for all participants. The future of our athletes and the sport itself depend on it.
Dr. Hunt Batjer is Chair of Neurosurgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Brain Institute and past Co-Chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee.