As the Carolina Panthers prepare to take the field tonight minus their star quarterback, the issue of concussions and their long-term effect again takes center stage.
Concussions have officially become a dark cloud over the nation’s most-watched sport, threatening the very existence of the game that owns the weekend. Participation numbers of lower-level football programs are beginning to dwindle, as reports increasingly make those in the youth athletics community aware of the risks associated with playing. Several Michigan high schools have recently cancelled their football seasons due to lack of participation and fear of injury. And at the sport’s highest level, a number of players at the professional level have ridden off into the retirement sunset while in their low- to mid-20s, in an attempt to save themselves from long-term mental illnesses that can result from constant concussive blows to the head.
Numerous rule changes have been enacted in an attempt to protect players and to save the game of football as we know it. Kickoff lines have been moved closer to the opposite end zones, resulting in increased touchbacks and decreased concussions (a 50% decrease in concussions was reported by the NFL in 2011 after the rule change). Players must now clear strict concussion protocols to be allowed back onto the field after a head injury, and in the event a player is injured during the game, he must overcome tall medical obstacles to be approved to return to the field.
Of course, the problem doesn’t just lie with the nature of the game. There are ways to change the game to further protect its players. A major problem is helping the players protect themselves from themselves.
It is in the DNA of almost any professional athlete to win at all costs, and to play through whatever kind of aches and pains may linger in their bodies, even if the aching may be in their heads. Long-term or even short-term side effects of an injury are far from a player’s mind when the totality of their focus is on the time remaining on the game clock, and what they have to do in order to ensure a win for their team. Perhaps what leaves athletes most susceptible to serious injuries, including concussions, is the mindset that an athlete has towards the sport.
Most professional athletes would have trouble making it to the professional level without this mentality. The desire to give the game everything they have is what often separates star athletes from simply talented ones. As the competition increases in ferocity, so does an athlete’s desire to keep what s/he has earned, and sitting out a game due to injury could mean losing out to the next man up.
“Muscular Christianity” is a movement that began in the 1800s, during a time where some Americans feared the country was growing “soft,” clinging to athletic activities that entailed very little physical strain. This was also around the time that college football stormed onto the national scene, rivaling baseball for the most popular sport in the country. The problem was the raw violence of the new sport, with players interlocking arms and charging at each other with helmetless heads, while pulling and pushing ball carriers and other numerous deliberate acts of violence inflicted on opponents, with very little officiating being done. Teams like Yale and Princeton were immensely popular, but so were the cries to end a game that saw roughly 20 people die during the 1905 season, and 167 serious injuries during that same year.
It was the Muscular Christians who led the battle cry to save football, claiming there was true honor in putting one’s body at risk for the good of sport, and for the sake of competition. President Teddy Roosevelt was a major advocate for this way of thinking, and personally saved the Harvard University football program in the early 1900s, paving the way for a new set of rules that would establish the forward pass, eliminate running starts for lineman, and declared interlocking arms illegal, as football lived and grew into the powerhouse as we know it today.
Muscular Christians believed in the positive effect on character values that sport possessed, especially football, where so much perseverance and determination is needed to be involved in such a physically demanding and harming game. Above this way of thinking, and the beliefs of those who saw football as dangerous and negative to the college experience, was the incredibly high level of entertainment value football presented, which is what has helped the sport survive countless trials and speed bumps on the road to national and global prominence. Through every attack on football, there it stands, taking all the hits and continuing to move forward, much like the mindset of the athletes that play the game. The problem is that very mindset may be why the sport takes so many hits, and why athletes put themselves at further risk by playing through pain.
The problem is injuries that aren’t addressed because players believe that they can play through it, and will be a hero in the end because of it, only to worsen their injury and risk serious damage to the brain.
Fans play a part in this as well. We worship the heroic tales of athletes past who brought our teams to victory despite battling physical pain and serious injury. The city of Los Angeles erupted when a hobbled Kirk Gibson limped out of the dugout and clubbed a pinch-hit home run to win game one of the 1988 World Series. Many consider the greatest moment in Madison Square Garden history to be the sight of Knicks legend Willis Reed trudging out of the tunnel just before game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, when Reed had torn a muscle in his right thigh just days prior. Our spirits were lifted as teammates lifted Marshall University quarterback Byron Leftwich and carried him downfield so the injured Leftwich, who had broken his shin bone earlier in the game, could finish a critical drive. Some of sports’ greatest moments have some type of injury behind them, with a fearless athlete playing through the pain and leading their team to victory, and to an unforgettable moment.
However, playing on leg injuries can risk further injury, but playing through a recent concussion is life-threatening. Second Impact Syndrome, when the head is hit on the same spot a concussion recently occurred, has taken lives of young athletes before.
Players have since listened to groundbreaking medical reports, and seen the effects of concussions on their predecessors, like Junior Seau or Ken Stabler, and have begun being more precautious themselves when dealing with football related head injuries. Maybe they went to the movies last year to see the major motion picture “Concussion” starring Will Smith. The elephant in the room of football is certainly not lingering in the shadows anymore, as any case of a concussion comes highly publicized. However, in the case of many athletes, the desire to be a hero and a fan favorite still outweighs the desire to be safe. A football player’s ego can be as dangerous as the game itself if he listens to it, giving in to the internal whispers to get back on the field and become a legend. The widely known saying that “pain is temporary, pride is forever”, may need to be altered. When dealing with concussions, pride may not be forever, but brain damage can be.
A lot has been said on the sketchy workings of the NFL in an attempt to cover up the concussion epidemic in their league. Roger Goodell and company need to be more up front with their numbers and findings, but the players can be more up front as well, and put pride aside and take a seat when their body tells them to. Playing on a sprained ankle is one thing, playing with a lingering headache due to a concussion is quite another, and players need to know the difference for the sake of the sport, and more importantly, their lives.