Concussions in the NFL: Onward to the Past

OCEANSIDE, CA - MAY 6: A surfer prepares go out into the surf for a ceremony during a "paddle-out" in honor of NFL star Junior Seau on May 6, 2012 in Oceanside, California. Seau, who played for various NFL teams including the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots was found dead in his home on May 2nd of an apparent suicide. Family members have decided to donate his brain for research on links between concussions and possible depression. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Football has changed a lot over the years. It used to be football was played by kicking a ball around the field in an attempt to kick it into the opposing team's goal. I've been told by many that game is still played today under the name of "soccer" but I've never seen it so it could just be a myth.

Then one day someone thought to themselves, "Wouldn't it be easier if I just picked up the ball and ran with it?" The ball was changed to look like a really large lemon, the number of players increased from 11 to 15, and we had the beginning of Rugby football, which eventually led to American football, or was we like to call it, real football.

Walter Camp, generally considered the father of American football, is responsible for bringing the number of players from 15 back to 11, the line-of-scrimmage, down-and-distance, and allowing the center to use his hands to get the ball to the quarterback. Incidentally, Rugby football still use their foot and the player isn't called the "center", he's called the "hooker" (insert your own joke here).

Further changes saw the introduction of the forward pass, 7 players on the line-of-scrimmage, allowing the wide receiver to catch the ball anywhere on the field instead of designated areas, and after 19 people died from playing football games in 1905 they made mass formations like "the flying wedge" illegal. In case you're wondering what that is, imagine the old wedge on kickoffs but instead of 5 players the whole team except the ball carrier forms a wedge, the opposing team forms their own wedge, and then they run into each other as fast as they can yelling like idiots.

At some point they started to wear padding, then helmets, then a face mask, and then the padding and helmets got bigger and better until we see the massive gear that could make even a scrawny 10-year old look big. I could go on and on as further changes have been made almost every year, but I think you get the idea.

The reason for that brief recap in the changes to football is we've arrived again at a point when we could be seeing some major changes in the way football is played. I'm not talking about minor changes like moving the ball forward 5 yards on kickoffs or getting rid of the wedge. I'm talking about major changes thanks to one very big problem, concussions.

More after the jump...

It's estimated that around 60% of every NFL player will have at least one concussion during their career, and an estimated 26% will have at least 3 or more. And it's probably worse than that as many concussions go undiagnosed. After ex-Bengals WR Chris Henry died in a car accident they found he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a form of brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head, even though he had never missed a game due to a concussion.

Kyle "I'm going to rip your helmet off" Turley, you know this guy, recalls after he got knocked out cold while playing with the Rams he couldn't remember where his wife was sitting, "It was right over my left shoulder. That's where it was and always would be, and had been all the games before that. I just kept looking around the stadium." Even though he had just suffered a concussion that should have kept him out for at least a month, he remembers what happened with team trainers just 3 days later in practice, "(They) said, ‘How do you feel?' I was like, ‘Well...I've got a little bit of a headache still, but it's getting better.' And they're like, ‘OK, good! We'll clear you today. We'll watch you.'"

Of course that couldn't happen today. Players now have to be cleared to play by an independent doctor. All 32 teams also now have posters at their facilities warning of the dangers of concussions, and there are many. Former players who've suffered from concussions are 5 times more likely to get Alzheimer's or dementia, and their 3 times more likely to suffer from depression. Just look at the case of Junior Seau.

But being aware of the possible dangers doesn't eliminate them, and in an ironic twist, the biggest problem may be all that padding that supposed to make them safer. I actually played both football and Rugby and I can say first hand that you tackle differently when you're wearing a helmet and shoulder pads than you do when the only protection you have is a cup in your jock strap. And now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I even wore that most of the times. The helmet might mean there's no need for a blood bin like there is in Rugby, but the brain is still sloshing back and forth inside the skull.

What makes things even more complicated is that so little is understood about the brain. There are many who feel it's not the big highlight-reel hits that are doing the most damage, but rather the countless little hits, or sub-concussions, that happen repeatedly over the course of a season.

Chris Nowinski, a former defensive lineman for Harvard who's doing research into the long-term effects of concussions, said of his playing days, "In college, when we had two-a-days at the beginning of the year, everybody's head throbbed...everybody. By the second week, you felt like you were going to throw up every time you got into a three-point stance. It's funny how normal we thought that was. We just thought we were getting used to hitting again." And that was at Harvard.

The NFL is currently engaged in over 80 lawsuits filed by former players. If the first few go favorably for the players and they're awarded a large settlement, you can expect the flood gates to open. The NFL might be the biggest sport in North America but they're not a bottomless well of money. And if former players are being awarded large settlements, what will that mean for current players. Even today with all the warnings on the packages, big tobacco deals with countless lawsuits every year.

Roger Goodell has made player safety his number one concern, despite the protests from many of the fans and players. But will it be enough? If the lawsuits continue to come and things go poorly for the NFL, could we see some future major changes to the way the game is played? At its inception, American football looked a lot more like Rugby than it did to the modern game we have today. I can't help but wonder if in the future the NFL will also look a lot more like it did in the past.

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