The safety of Football and Head Injuries

Without a doubt, the biggest issue regarding sports today is the meteoric rise of head injuries suffered among athletes. Head injuries have always been an issue in sports, but we are more aware of them today and we know more of the serious effects that concussions can have. Athletes are not only suffering in the short term, but they are experiencing serious long term effects that are detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Many are starting to question if the benefits of participating in high contact sports are worth the risks that athletes put them through. Players these days are piling up concussions and it is putting their future at risk. Many are pleading for Broncos receiver, Wes Welker, to retire from the game after receiving yet another concussion. Sports writer Jeff Pearlman wrote a letter to Wes, explaining to him that next game isn’t that important and neither is this year’s Super Bowl, but what is important is his family and his long term health (http://www.jeffpearlman.com/dear-wes-welker/). Should athletes continue to play sports in an era where head injuries are so prevalent and one’s career and future health could be impacted at any moment?

Obviously head injuries need to try to be eliminated in sports to the best of their ability to keep safety and health a priority for the athletes. But we have to understand that these safety procedures are not always beneficial for every party involved. For example, let’s take a look at football and the lengths the NFL has made to try to reduce the rates of concussions. No longer in the NFL are players allowed to make contact with the head or neck area on a defenseless player. This may seem like a great rule for the safety of the players, but this actually hurts the defensive players and puts them at risk for injury. Since the players are not allowed to hit the players in the head area, they have to lower their target area and they often make tackles with their head and neck area exposed. An example of this was seen this season with 49er rookie safety, Eric Reid. Reid has suffered two concussions this year because of the way he has been forced to tackle opposing players. Reid suffered his first concussion when he tried to tackle Seahawks wide receiver Sydney Rice. Reid could have led with his head but he would have been flagged for hitting Rice with his helmet when the receiver was defenseless. Reid had to change his tackling style and he ended turning his head when tackling the receiver and he took the force of the hit on his neck area and suffered his first concussion. The truth is Reid and other small safeties often put their own health at risk when tackling bigger receivers because they often have to lead with their head to tackle these players in open space (for more information on Reid’s tackling style, visit http://www.ninersnation.com/2013/11/17/5109616/eric-reid-concussion-nfl-safety-49ers). I bring this point up because people often think that eliminating contact to the head will decrease the rate of concussions. The truth is, by protecting one group of players, you are putting the other group at risk. There is truly no winner with head injuries in sport.

Another repercussion of the new rules in football is the rise of ACL and other knee injuries because of the new rule changes. The rule changes preventing hits to the heads forces players to aim at the knees of offensive players. Players often cannot react quickly enough to avoid a player launching at their knees and catastrophic knee injuries often result. Statistics actually show that knee injuries that place players on season ending injury reserve have skyrocketed since these new rules have been implemented. Last year there were 28 more players who suffered knee injuries that ended their season than the year before. This year, through week 15, there have been 11 more season ending knee injuries than through the same point last year. For more information and statistics, visit http://espn.go.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/106384/inside-slant-knee-injuries-on-rise-overall). These knee injuries will continue to increase every year as long as players are forced to lower their strike zone when making a tackle. We just saw this past weekend how Rob Gronkowski suffered a horrific knee injury when making a catch over the middle. Maybe two years ago, the defensive player would hit him higher on his body and Gronkowski wouldn’t be hurt. But since players are penalized and even fined when making illegal hits, they are forced to go towards the knee area when making a tackle. Is it fair that Rob Gronkowski had to go through season ending knee surgery and the rest of his career may be in jeopardy?

If we try to eliminate head injuries, than we are exposing other players to injuries because of the adjustments that have to be made when tackling. But the truth is there is no way to completely eliminate injuries form contact sport, besides eliminating contact all together. There will either be an increase in head injuries or an increase in knee injuries, but either way the player’s health and wellbeing will be affected. We know how hard it is to come back from injury, both mentally and physically. Rob Gronkowski will have to go through yet another surgery and decide to himself if this is all worth it. I think the NFL needs to continue to keep safety at a premium, but they need to realize that knee injuries can be just as hard on the athlete as head injuries are. At the end of the day, medicine has gotten much better and an ACL can be replaced, but return to normal brain function cannot. Concussions present long term detrimental effects that influence health and wellbeing. Research needs to continue and safety needs to be implemented, but there is no way to avoid injury in contact sport. As long as athletes accept this risk, they should continue to play if it is something they choose to do. 

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