Does the NFL have a concussion problem? | A More Than Football podcast with Trey Wingo

On this week's More Than Football podcast, Trey Wingo and Brett Yarris discuss the problems the NFL has with concussions and CTE.

One problem that the NFL is constantly struggling with is the number of concussions the game causes, while research is still early on CTE and its causes and effects. On this week’s More Than Football podcast, PFN’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and host Brett Yarris discuss the NFL’s concussion problem.

To watch this episode of the More Than Football podcast, tune in to the video player above. You can also listen to the podcast in the player at the end of the article or on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Are there more concussions than there used to be?

Yarris starts the conversation by bringing up a rather telling statistic — since 2010, there have been at least 200 concussions per season. The one exception was last year, although that was partly due to the lack of a preseason.

The NFL has taken steps to limit those numbers, but they appear to have been ineffective.

Wingo has a couple of responses to that statistic. First, it is difficult to judge whether those numbers are actually higher than they used to be. 10 years ago, we weren’t really paying attention to concussions.

It is entirely possible that, before the NFL started taking concussions seriously, the numbers were even higher. More importantly, Wingo notes that “the game will never be 100% safe.” The NFL has taken strides towards making it safer. Yet, in a collision sport like football, a certain level of risk will always exist.

There are further steps that can be taken; for example, many have suggested that the kickoff should be removed altogether. However, Wingo believes teams will find ways around the new restrictions. Namely, they are already adjusting to the changes the NFL has made to kickoffs so far by pooch kicking the ball to force the opposing team to return it.

Ultimately, while there is still plenty the NFL can do to make the game safer, the danger will always be there.

The NFL’s concussion protocols need work

One problem with the NFL’s current method of handling concussions is the concussion protocols. As Wingo notes, “you can be concussed and still pass concussion protocols.”

He points to the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans a few weeks ago. During the game, Patrick Mahomes was kneed in the head.

The signs of a concussion were clearly there. Mahomes’ arms were in the fencing position, a defensive reflex, and a clear sign of neurological trauma. He also needed help to walk off the field. And as Yarris notes, the protocols already suggest that instability while walking is a mark of a concussion.

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Despite that, Mahomes still passed concussion protocols. The only reason he didn’t come back into the game was because Andy Reid felt the game was already out of hand.

Wingo believes clear physical signs of a concussion, like the ones we saw from Mahomes, should be included in the protocols and taken more seriously. He points out that we do so much to protect players from each other; we need to do the same “to protect those players from themselves or the coaches or whomever.”

In situations like the one we saw with Mahomes, “if you see that on the field … that’s it.” The player needs to be kept out of the game.

The complex issue of CTE

A topic that is closely tied to concussions is CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Wingo is quick to point out that it is an extremely complicated issue. Our understanding of CTE is constantly changing. It is difficult to study because we can’t diagnose it until after the person dies. That’s, of course, assuming they have donated their brains to science.

As an example of the confusion that can arise, Wingo brings up a study that found that of the 100 brains that were donated, 98 of them showed signs of CTE. However, the study was “not in any way suggesting that 98% of all people who play will get CTE.” The brains were donated by people who believed their relatives were showing signs. It wasn’t a random sample of all former players.

Since CTE is so misunderstood, we shouldn’t overuse the label. The reality is that, as Wingo puts it, “there are people that do bad things, and there are people that do stupid things. Not all of them are caused by CTE.” Casually attributing their actions to CTE diminishes the impact the condition has on those who have actually suffered from it.

The Concussion Legacy Foundation

To round out the discussion, Wingo and Yarris talk about the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF). The CLF is an organization that Wingo works with that works to help athletes, veterans, and others affected by concussions and CTE.

Wingo points out that, regarding concussions and CTE, “people want information.” He doesn’t believe most people who were already inclined to play football will stop because of CTE. Some might decide not to play or retire earlier than they would otherwise, but that is their decision to make.

What bothered people in the past was a lack of transparency on the NFL’s part. For a long time, they didn’t even acknowledge that concussions were a problem. Unfortunately, the league isn’t exactly known for its forthcomingness. Just look at how they are handling the Washington Football Team scandal.

As Yarris notes, the WWE, another organization that deals with concussions regularly, is partnered with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The NFL isn’t, preferring to deal with the situation in their own way, often with controversial results.

That’s why organizations like the CLF are necessary. To help people get more information about a confusing topic and help those already suffering.

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