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The Risk of Concussions in Professional Football

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Football is a game that has been embedded in American sports for almost two centuries and has grown in popularity and recognition each year that it has existed. Since the very beginning of the 1920s, the National Football League has been established and ever since then has provided entertainment every Sunday to millions of Americans country wide. Of course, to play professionally it is required to play collegiately and the National Collegiate Athletic Association soon created a football division in 1978. Naturally, over the years this type of sports entertainment has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars and has established itself as one of the most successful businesses. As you would expect, with these big corporations they tend to advertise all the positive aspects about their business and tend to shove everything else that is negative under a rug. Head injuries, also known as concussions, is exactly the type of negative attention that has been plaguing collegiate and professional football for years and is no longer able to be hidden any longer. From former Nfl players such as Junior Seau amd Frank Gifford to college football players such as Tyler Hilinski, head injuries have caused or contributed to the deaths of many of these football players over the years. With the emergence of CTE ( chronic traumatic encephalopathy) found in retired NFL players throughout the years, a countrywide debate has raged on what the NFL and the NCAA can do to help prevent and lower the chances of these fatal head injuries from happening so often.

For my extended essay, I will try to elaborate on to what extent has collegiate and professional football played in causing these concussions and what they’ve attempted to do to prevent these sort of head injuries. I will speak about where football originated and the risks that football provides. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the game of football was created on November 6th, 1869 with William “Pudge” Heffelfinger being the first professional football player( Birth of Pro Football”). Back in 1892, these athletes got paid a “game performance bonus” which was a mere $500 dollars. Football comes from both a combination of soccer and rugby which has enjoyed worldwide success in countries around the world. When football was first in its beginning stages, safety was the the last thing on the minds of people playing. In fact, rugby, the game that football originated from is one of the most dangerous sports in the world. It’s played with absolutely no helmet at all and still consists of the same hard tackling hits that the NFL consists of today. It was not until the 1920s that that any sort of protection was widely used in football in the form of a leather helmet. These leather helmets were of little to no use at all as it provided virtually no protection except a soft leather padding.

These “helmets” also didn’t include any face masks which would protect these players from any swift blows to the neck and head area. To make matters worse, these helmets were optional and not even required for these players to wear. Thankfully, the leaders of professional football saw the errors of their ways and decided that they needed to improve the safety of these players. In order to do this, John T. Riddell introduced the first plastic helmet in 1939. This change deemed to only be temporary as plastics became more rare during World War 2 and as plastic mixes started to defect these helmets started to break during games and broke into pieces. Because of this, these helmets were banned for a year but were brought back a year later with the improvement of the padded plastic helmet. Even though this small improvements were made, there was still a major component of the helmet that wasn’t added: the face mask. Without these masks on the helmet, these players were dealing with multiple injuries such as swollen lips, bloody noses, and black eyes. This single bar face mask was deemed a success and by 1942 it was required that all professional players wear these masks during games.

As time passed the game adjusted as well and the single bar face mask wouldn’t be sufficient in the ever-evolving violent game of football. Fast forward to today, helmets use top tier technology in order to protect these football players to the best of their abilities. These helmets became more than protection but became a piece of engineered equipment. The technology on the inside of the helmet improved by adding foam padding and plastic pods which were invented to absorb the shock of impacts from hits and help the helmet to fit as good as possible. The outer part of the helmet also made big improvements with the outer shell being made of polycarbonate over a slate of aluminum which all goes over a thin layer of leather. Contrary to popular belief, the development of helmets has not completely wiped out all concerns of head injuries, in fact it has been quite the opposite. Head injuries are a growing concern in the game of football and the NCAA and the NFL are partly responsible for some of these issues. As stated in the article “The Evolution of the Football Helmet”, in the summer of 2011 a lawsuit was filed against the NFL by 2,000 former players alleged the league didn’t do enough to educate the players of the neurological risks that come with playing football (Stamp 2012). Some of these mental issues range from dementia, depression, and even early-onset Alzheimer’s. The problem with the NFL is that it creates all these great rules on how you are to tackle another player without malicious intent or even where you’re allowed to hit these players but it scarcely has any rules about the helmets themselves. In fact,according to the National Operating Committee on Standards of Athletic Opinion (NOCSAE), there are no guidelines that determine what type of helmets these athletes are required to wear. This leads to all types of different players wearing their desired type of helmet to accommodate with their personal needs. The NFL isn’t better off either as it’s only rules having to do with these helmets focuses solely on the facemask and chinstrap. Because of these different types of helmets being worn by different athletes across professional football, some may be better equipped to take these concussion inflicting blows than others. The NFL has began to make small steps towards improvements in safety for the modern football player.

The two manufacturers that are now used to make helmets for professional football, Riddell and Schutt, were created to prevent concussions which research showed tend to come from hits to either the side of the head or to the jaw. They also have implemented a new system where after taking hard hits to the head, they are required to go through a brief examination on the sidelines. Though all this new technology has been created in order to prevent these head injuries the same question still remains: how can the NCAA and the NFL continue to prevent these types of head injuries? To fully understand how dangerous head injuries really are, you have to learn about the real life scenarios that have happened to some of these football players that have changed their lives forever. You have to look no further than the case of Mike Webster, also known as Iron Mike which was a Hall of Fame center who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his prime, he was easily one of the best players to ever play the game and was virtually unstoppable. When he retired in 1990, the only thing that couldn’t be stopped was his constant mental and physical deterioration which led to his death at 50 years old on September 24, 2002. In an article written by the Atlantic, it cites how Webster suffered all throughout his post career life which led him to partaking in absurd things such as living out his van, tasering himself to relieve his pain that was chronic, and even trying to place his rotten teeth together with super glue (Laskas 2015). Webster’s story is so compelling that Jeanne Marie Laskas published a novel which was later turned into a movie named “Concussion” which explained the downfall of Webster and how these head injuries shortened his life. Dr. Omalu, a foreign doctor from Nigeria, was the person who discovered that football causes these types of life-threatening injuries and brought light to the fact that football wasn’t as safe as the league would love to tell you it is. Over 60 years laters, the NFL is still dealing with these same issues and continues to downplay the negative effects that head injuries have on the game of football. As stated in a research paper conducted by Boston University, CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms (Moran 2017).

There are a multitude of symptoms associated with CTE which include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgements and many more just to name a few. The Boston University Research CTE center is quick to note that it is often mistaken that if you suffer a concussion you have CTE but this is not always the case. CTE is acquired from multiple or repetitive brain trauma. Though the exact numbers of hits to the head needed to suffer from CTE is unknown, one hit to the head is unlikely to cause you to suffer from this disease. The unfortunate part about attaining and suffering from this disease is that it currently has no cure and can only be diagnosed after death with a procedure called postmortem neuropathological analysis, according to research done on the Neuropathology of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (Pathol 2015). Using this process CTE has been found in the brains of many of these former professional football players such as Junior Seau, Dwight Clark, Bill Bryant and more. Thanks to research, we have a more thorough understanding of what this disease really is and how it’s affected athlete’s brains throughout the years. Science has been proven to show that these hits to the head and neck area are indeed the cause of these players having CTE but only one group seems to vehemently deny this: the NFL. The NFL is one of the 4 major American sports and brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year off of revenue and entertainment provided by the players. According to “ Top 10 Most Watched Sporting Events on U. S Television”, The Super Bowl still remains as the top watched event every year and popularity for the game seems to grow more and more each and every year. Naturally, the league would love to advertise all the positives and turn a blind eye to the more negative attention. That’s why it comes as no surprise to when the media asked Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, about the dangers of CTE he did nothing more but down play it.

In fact his reply was “The average NFL player lives five years longer than you. So their lifespan is actually longer and healthier. And I think because of all the advancements, including the medical care, that number is going to even increase for them. ” As you could imagine, this caused an uproar with both current and former players and even owners from other sports such as Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks. Goodell’s statement was ignorant because according to a study conducted by Dr. Ann Mckee, statistics show out of 111 brains donated to CTE research all but one was found to have CTE in their brains. That’s shocking considering the way the NFL would like you to think that their game is safer than these researchers and scientists let on. Professional football has evolved over the years in a variety of ways such as a better stadium experience, improved uniforms, adjusted rules, and other improvements to make the game of football more entertaining. While all of these things serve to bring in revenue and more interest, they failed to address the most important aspect of their game which is safety.

Over the years, due to outside pressure from media and fans alike, they’ve tried their best to cover up their sins and try make top tier technology and make new rules to provide more protection to these athletes. So to what extent has collegiate and professional football helped in causing these concussions and what they’ve attempted to do to prevent these sort of head injuries? I believe that they are partially responsible especially in the beginning years because they let these athletes play virtually unprotected. With a sport as dangerous as football, instead of denying the dangers of these head injuries, they should’ve spent more money to protect their players. Admittedly though the NFL has been doing a better job at putting the safety of these players as a priority. Hopefully this translates into a safer future and brighter days ahead for the lives of these professional football players.

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The Risk of Concussions in Professional Football. (2020, February 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from
“The Risk of Concussions in Professional Football.” GradesFixer, 27 Feb. 2020,
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The Risk of Concussions in Professional Football [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Feb 27 [cited 2023 Jan 28]. Available from:
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