Brain Injuries on the Field — Football Concerns Mount

Is there a risk of brain injury when playing games like football? No question. Have players in Chicago and throughout Illinois been permanently disabled (and even killed) as a result of collisions on the field? Yes. Is everything possible being done to keep players safe? That’s still up for debate.

The connection between football playing and brain injuries is well-known. But what truly matters from a legal perspective is the work that is done (or not done) to prevent those injuries. Not all injuries lead to legal liability, but many do. That is because quite often these brain injuries are predicated in whole or in part on unreasonable behavior by those in a position to prevent the harm. That premise is at root in the high-profile NFL brain injury cases, where hundreds of former players claim they suffered serious consequences as a result of their playing days. The suit claims that the NFL hid information about those risks and otherwise did not do enough to keep those players as healthy as possible.

The NFL finally made news in a good way last week, after the league donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health. The donation will be used to help research efforts into head injuries in all athletes.

Serious Football Head and Brain Injuries
A story this week in the New York Times sought to re-emphasize a stark reality–football injuries are real, occur at all levels, and need to be addressed. The story noted pithily that “all that on-field headbanging is taking a serious toll.”

The article notes that the latest NFL brain injury donation comes on the heels of a brand-new study published in the journal Neurology, which found that former players in the NFL are more likely than the general population to develop a whole host of problems later in life, including Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s. Perhaps most glaringly was the degree of connection between these ailments and increased player risk–upwards of 300-400%.

Unfortunately, while we know much more about the causes of concussions, we have made far fewer advances in the preventing those injuries. It is certainly not an easy challenge. That is because we now know that serious brain injuries are caused by the collision of the brain with the inside of the skull–this is hard to minimize. That’s because a helmet, for example, only prevents collisions on the outside of the head–the brain contact still occurs. In that regard, the best bet at limiting the long-term harm will likely come from rule changes, resting requirements, and other big-picture options that minimize contact.

At a minimum, it is critical for all athletes to take advantage of simple tests so that concussions are at least identified. Most of these tests involve simple brain challenges, like remembering words or images. The test is taken before competition and then repeated after a potential injury to gauge possible brain effects. There is no reason that high school and college programs should not take advantage of these tools. While they do not do anything to prevent a concussion, they at least identify the problem and ensure proper treatment can be had.

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