Keeping Score on Concussions: It's a Game-Changer

The NFL, UIL adopt new guidelines for athletes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The culture of one of America’s most violent sports is about to change.

A recent slate of concussions in high school, college and National Football League (NFL) sports has prompted officials to make a few controversial calls. We’re not talking flags and penalties here.  

After a series of alarming and concussive hits on professional football fields this past Sunday, the NFL this week fined three players – Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather – a total of $175,000 for illegal, helmet-to-helmet hits. Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, wrote in a letter to players that future offenses would result in “an escalation of fines and including suspension.”  

Harrison has threatened to retire over the so-called dirty hit sanction, and Robinson is appealing the NFL fine.

“Although it was a violent hit, my hit did not violate the NFL's rules,” Robinson said, explaining the impact as a “bang-bang hit situation where I did not lead with my helmet.”

Bang-bang hit situations aside, as far as football-related concussions go, the numbers are hard-hitting. An estimated 300,000 football players in the United States sustain concussions every year, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

On the high school front, the UIL Legislative Council recently approved a new Concussion Management Protocol (CMP), set to take effect Aug. 1, 2011. The CMP will shift to a process that includes an examination by a trained adult supervisor or licensed medical professional for players suspected to have suffered a concussion. These players will not be allowed to return to competition on the same day of the injury and must be cleared by a medical professional to return to the game.

Concussions, a mild form of traumatic brain injury (TBI), can occur after a serious blow to the head. Symptoms include headache, memory loss of events surrounding the injury and sometimes a loss of consciousness. Emergency signs include muscle weakness, persistent confusion and problems walking. Long-term effects of multiple concussions can be dire, such as the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a degenerative brain disease that mimics the symptoms of the fatal Lou Gerhig’s disease.

The recent NFL decision to penalize so-called dirty hits has drawn ire from some critics. Washington Redskins’ defensive end Phillip Daniels called the NFL crackdown “crazy” and asked publicly if the NFL had become a “cupcake league.” Critics argue players know the inherent violence of the game before they step onto the field.

“Parents are asked to sign form for their kids to play because of the dangers,” Daniels said.

The UIL ruling to implement new guidelines appears somewhat less controversial in light of recent concussive tackles and hits.

“As a former football coach, I believe there's more that we don't know about concussions than we do know,” said Greg Poole, superintendent of the Barbers Hill school district in Texas. He went on to say officials need to “look at the bigger picture,” just before the UIL committee unanimously agreed to recommend stricter concussion guidelines.

Both rulings indicate good news for athletes who sustain head injuries from hits – even the bang-bang kind.

Review Date: 
October 21, 2010