Why the NFL Will Always Have a Concussion Problem

The date was January 23, 2011. The stage was the NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers – a trip to Super Bowl XLV on the line. Trailing the Packers by 14 in the third quarter, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left the game with a knee injury. Cutler was figuratively (and almost literally) crucified by the media, fans and players for sitting out the remainder of the game – the most cutting remarks coming from current and former NFL players.

Maurice Jones-Drew was quoted as saying, “Hey I think the Urban Meyer rule is effect right now… When the going gets tough, QUIT… All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee… I played the whole season on one…”

Trent Dilfer, analyst for ESPN said “You can play this position (QB) hurt – some of us have.”

While it wasn’t a concussion, this incident from 2011 highlights a mentality in sports that resonates through locker rooms, the media, and even our living rooms. In any sport, football especially, players are expected to play through injury. The rule of thumb that we seem to have adopted is “if you can be out on the field, you should be” but for some reason, we expect things to be different when dealing with concussions. Players are chastised for being tentative about the health of their shoulders, knees, and ankles, but are asked not to be cavalier when it comes to head injuries – injuries that are so much harder to recognize and diagnose.

Starting in 2015, the NFL appointed a neutral “spotter” who watches the game from high atop the stadium, alerting officials if he thinks a player is on the field while showing signs of a concussion. It’s immediately apparent that this system is flawed, and those flaws came to the forefront when Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins claimed that he played the entire second half of a week nine matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.

“I think they all trust my own judgment. Nobody really knew anything or asked me anything. I was still able to digest the plan. We were still making adjustments and I was still making calls.” Jenkins said. He also claimed that he never lost consciousness or felt dizzy.

At the time, the Eagles were in the thick of the NFC East division race, playing against their rival Cowboys. It should also be noted that the Philadelphia media is rivaled only by New York in its criticism of players. Even if Jenkins had felt ill effects from the play that gave him a concussion, there is a good chance he would have fought to stay in the game – a mentality ingrained in all athletes – particularly those that play at the highest levels.

So little is known about concussions, what causes them, the long term effects, the drivers of increased risk; it is tough to pinpoint players who have them or take steps to eliminate plays where concussion happen more frequently. There was data to support that more injuries happened on kickoffs than any other play, which led to the kickoff line being moved up and more touchbacks. The injury data was not specific to concussions.

An area of football that is often overlooked is down in the trenches, where offensive linemen hobble out with knee injuries, broken fingers and more. Out of the 22 players on the field for each play, the offensive linemen are the only ones involved in contact 100% of the time – often butting heads (literally) with defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers. Statistically, linemen play the highest percentage of snaps while injured because they are required to be the toughest, grittiest guys on the field. Do you think they are going to alert the training staff that they have a concussion when they have just gone through three quarters of a football game on barely working legs?

The reality is that there is no way to make football safe, and to make matters worse, NFL contracts are unfriendly to players, particularly when it comes to injuries. According to the NFL, the average length of a career in the National Football League is 3.3 years. Compare that to the NBA where the average career lasts 4.8 years or Major League Baseball at 5.6 years. Oddly enough, there is more guaranteed money in NBA and MLB contracts than the NFL which further exacerbates the issue. If you miss a game, you miss a check – that’s 1/16 of your salary. Most of America couldn’t get by missing a paycheck, and that is only 1/26 of their annual earnings. A discussion on salaries, saving for the future, and responsible spending is a topic for another day, but the fact of the matter is that in the NFL, if you can’t do your job there is always someone waiting in the wings to do it for you. And this isn’t like maternity leave where you can return to your desk after three months and pick up where you left off – if you go down with an injury, there is a good chance you might never see the field again.

There is no way to change the way contracts are structured. There is no way to curb the competitive nature of athletes. There is no way to keep fans and analysts from questioning the severity of an injury. And there is no way to convince a player to come out of a game for this vague concept of a concussion. The NFL will always have a concussion problem.