With a growing body of research showing that hits to the head over
years on the football field can lead to early dementia, violent
behavior and other mental problems later in life, league officials,
former players and medical experts have been working to reduce the
number of concussions on the field.
Medical officials with the National Football League said changes
including banning helmet-to-helmet hits and more aggressively
monitoring players' condition on the sidelines have paid off: the
number of concussions suffered by players dropped 13 percent in the
2013 season from 2012. The figures, compiled by the league, could
not be independently verified.
The latest data was encouraging to Shawn Wooden, 40, a retired
defensive back who spent most of his career with the Miami Dolphins
and is one of 4,500 former players suing the NFL, saying the league
knowing downplayed the risk of concussions to player health.
"Thirteen percent, that's a step forward for the safety of the
game," Wooden said during an interview in New York. "That's what
everybody wants, making sure that player safety is the main
objective. ... Making sure that we are taking care of guys who are
suffering from some of the injuries, some of the head trauma."
A growing body of medical research shows the repeated hits to the
head suffered by football players, hockey players, boxers and other
athletes can lead to a debilitating brain condition called chronic
traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The condition, which can currently be confirmed only after death,
has been found in some players who died in recent years, including
former San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau, who shot himself in the
chest in 2012.
One of the biggest rule changes the league made this season aimed at
reducing concussions is stopping players from spearing each other
with the crowns of their helmets.
"There were actually very few of those violations called by the
officials, so I think there is an awareness that this is something
that has to be taken out of the game," said John York, a doctor and
co-chairman of the San Francisco 49ers.
Some 228 concussions were recorded during the 2013 pre-season and
regular season, including practices, down from 261 in 2012,
according to figures the league released this week.
The league has financial incentives to work on minimizing
concussions. A federal judge in Philadelphia this month rejected the
NFL's $760 million settlement offer in the lawsuit by former
players, saying more may be needed to cover future needs of those
who were injured.
The NFL has taken a more active approach to evaluating players for
possible concussions during games, keeping a doctor on the sidelines
who is paid by the league, not the teams.
"There are uniform protocols on the sidelines for diagnosing these
and that's part of the change," said Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice
president of health and safety.
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Players who have suffered hits that could lead to concussion
are put through a set of standardized tests that evaluate their
memory and balance, which doctors and trainers use to decide
whether to pull the player from the game.
Medical staff have become quicker to pull athletes out of a game
if they may have suffered a concussion. The concern is that
someone who has suffered even a mild concussion may be at risk
for a more serious one. That requires a firm approach when
dealing with professional athletes, who try to hide signs of
concussion to return to play, doctors and players said.
"As a team physician, I've told players, listen I'm trying to do
this for your benefit, please be honest with me," said Matthew
Matava, an orthopedic surgeon and doctor for the St. Louis Rams.
"As I'm doing that I'm also taking his helmet so he can't run
back on the field."
Stefan Duma, a professor of biomedical engineering at Virginia
Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, who studies concussions in
football, called the decline "pretty significant."
He noted that improvements in helmets have likely helped reduce
concussions but said the most important factor was changes to
the rules limiting head-to-head hits.
"Not getting hit in the head is the best thing," Duma said.
One of the biggest factors in reducing concussions in football
is cultural, both changing play so that athletes don't lead with
their heads and convincing players to take the risk of
concussion seriously, experts said.
Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, who suffered two
concussions this year, told reporters he is glad to see the
league trying to limit them.
But when asked if he would let a concussion keep him out of
Sunday's championship matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, he
replied, "What do you think?
"I mean, you want to be out there. The Super Bowl, this is what
you dream about," Welker said. "You're going to be there, I
don't care what it takes."
Even Duma said he understood the sentiment. More important, he
said, is avoiding concussions at lower-level play.
"If you're in the penultimate game of your career ... the
majority of people would do whatever they can to stay in that
game," Duma said. "That's very different from pee-wee football,
high school football, 99 percent of the games we play."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; editing by David Gregorio)
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