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Park: Concussions in the NFL shouldn’t be a problem

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When my dad and I would watch football on television as I grew up, my mother was always more than a bit worried by our captivation with the big hits and aggression displayed in full force on the gridiron.

She’d ask, “What, do they want to die early or something?” (except in Korean), shaking her head all the while.

I’d just ignore her. So would my dad. We liked the product on the field too much to be bothered to care.

But as time has progressed, the research on traumatic brain injuries and concussions has mounted, and the nation as a whole has developed a greater awareness of the risks of playing contact sports like football and the possible consequences later in life for the players that choose to do so.

Although the amount and urgency of research being done has increased with our ability to look into those matters over the last few years, the NFL game itself really hasn’t changed too much — if at all — given new information.

That interesting (and/or troubling) dichotomy proved for an interesting discussion at the 2015 Stanford Business Sports Innovation Conference on Wednesday, where Stanford Director of Athletic Training Scott Anderson was joined by two other gentlemen conducting research in concussions, along with former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew, in a roundtable on the matter.

Anderson’s message was clear: Despite all of the research, we still really don’t know what a concussion is. It’s some injury to the brain as a direct result of physical contact, but after all these years, we still can’t objectively diagnose concussions during in-game situations and we can’t define a physical “boundary” for a hit that will cause a concussion given different “tolerances” for such hits that vary significantly among individuals.

But what we do know is that these brain injuries can have significant consequences in both the short and long-term.

Just ask Toni Kokenis, the former Stanford women’s basketball star that decided after her fourth concussion that basketball just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Or ask Chris Borland, the 49ers linebacker who decided to hang up his cleats, after just one season in the NFL, at the ripe old age of 24 because he decided preemptively that the risk to his health was too much for him to justify continuing his career.

Given those occurrences — and how concussions continue to pop up week after week in football (whether we learn about them or not) — the researchers on the panel seemed in favor of changing the protocols at every level to diminish the risks to players’ health.

To my surprise, even as he held his young, football-playing son in his lap, Jones-Drew vehemently disagreed, and I’ve got to say that his arguments did make a lot of sense to me despite my initial inclination to lean in favor of being overly cautious with safety.

Firstly, it’s just in the nature of the game itself for people to be rough with each other, and that brute physicality is why a lot of players get into the sport (and out of bad neighborhoods or situations, in many cases) in the first place — Jones-Drew included.

“To be honest, I just played the game because you can do things to people and not get into trouble,” he said with a smile.

That spectacle is what we as fans pay for and love. Would we really enjoy football as much without the groan-inducing, bone-crunching hits? Would the players? I’ve never donned pads and a helmet for myself before, but I’ve talked to enough players to know that most of them love to hit guys and get hit in return. And we, as fans, would be disappointed if the physicality disappeared, even if it was in the name of safety.

“Nobody wants to watch us play flag football,” Jones-Drew said.

Now, let’s say that some policy was issued by the NFL, according to which X player would be pulled after a hit that satisfied criteria Y and Z as a precaution.

Now imagine that it’s the AFC Championship, and the Browns are down by 4 with under a minute to go but running an impeccable two-minute drill against the Titans (I know it sounds ridiculous, but imagine harder, damn it). Now imagine that Johnny Manziel is dropped by a huge hit but gets up and seems fine and ready to head back to the huddle.

But according to the NFL’s new rule, Manziel has to be taken out of the game because of the hit for precautionary reasons, and Connor Shaw immediately throws the game-clinching interception, because Cleveland.

What if it turns out that there was actually nothing wrong with Manziel? What if the NFL’s caution cost the Browns a Super Bowl berth and millions of dollars? There’s just no way a precautionary system would work in the NFL, because, as Jones-Drew puts it, “the NFL is a big business.”

The multimillionaire owners would never accept such a rule change in their high-stakes, gazillion-dollar games of chess. Not in a million years. Nor would the players or the fans, for that matter — could you imagine the reaction in the Cleveland locker room or among the fans if that scenario were to occur? Roger Goodell’s office would literally be burned to the ground before the night was up.

Finally, Jones-Drew also made a fantastic point that if physical play were to be limited in youth football, the overall effect would actually be detrimental, citing moments in videos of inflicted concussions in which players took blows to their heads due to improper body positioning or otherwise bad handling of a compromising situation.

Now, obviously, some big hits are unavoidable and those hits could cause concussions regardless of how prepared a player is to deal with them. However, Jones-Drew argued that limiting those hits in youth and high-school football would give players a lack of experience in how to properly protect themselves when being hit in a real, full-speed, physical game, because their instincts in such situations would be severely underdeveloped.

Better to develop those instincts when kids are young and those hits are much softer due to their underdeveloped bodies instead of when they’re fully-grown men, when those hits could actually cause severe injury, no? Jones-Drew thinks so, and I agree.

Jones-Drew certainly put forth a convincing argument, but I do think that at the youth or even the collegiate level, the risk factors could certainly be limited more effectively with more vigilant monitoring by “hit scouters” on sidelines that would err on the side of caution and not be afraid to pull players according to certain hit guidelines (which, as Anderson explained, is exactly what he does for Stanford regardless of circumstances). While that could ostensibly have very real impacts on the outcomes of games, I think that’s less of a concern when the athletes aren’t paid, and their status as students and growing young men is just as important (if not more so) than their status as athletes.

However, at the NFL level, I don’t think a stricter concussion or traumatic brain injury screening protocol is necessary — or realistic.

Here’s the thing: Just the second point from above — the potential consequences if a healthy player were to be removed from a big game — is enough for the NFL to not be okay with this. And it’s not as if the players don’t have a say in the matter if they decide the risk is too much — they can just go the way of Borland and give up if they decide the benefit they get from playing football and making money from it is not enough to justify that risk. Nobody gave Borland any crap about worrying about his health and hanging up the cleats — it’s a personal decision that everybody respected. There’s no shame in that.

You might argue, then, that the NFL would become self-selecting in a way, because not all players have the ability to just drop out of the league and find another job with which to make a living. Doesn’t this inherently disadvantage them or jeopardize their health?

It does, but I’m of the mindset that such a risk should be considered a workplace hazard whose presence is one of the opportunity costs of making millions of dollars and playing in the NFL. Construction workers face the risk of getting maimed or killed in industrial accidents every day. So do workers in power plants. And so do firefighters, and police officers, and chemists and pretty much every other job out there.

I think the risk of a concussion is a similar hazard that players can deal with, educate themselves on and ultimately take preventative measures to mitigate. They are getting paid millions of dollars to do it, after all — and nobody bats an eye when those inherent risks come up in any of the other jobs listed above.

That’s not to say that I think research on concussions should stop — I think it would be good for the NFL to attach sensors to pads or helmets and put medical professionals on sidelines so that hits and injuries can be better characterized and diagnosed.

And, in fact, I think it would be best if the NFL were to clearly outline the potential risks and consequences resulting from concussions and other traumatic brain injuries that are inherent to the game of American football, so that players have an opportunity to decide for themselves whether the risk is worth it and maybe sign a contract or something.

Again, I’ve never played American football myself, so I might be speaking completely out of turn. I, in turn, would love feedback from you, the reader, as to better formulate my thoughts on this condition and how to properly manage it as we learn more about it.

Concussions are a terrible side effect of the game of American football and are a real health risk that should be mitigated as much as possible — just not at the cost of the spirit of the game and the reason that so many people enjoy it.

As a Minnesota native, Vikings fan Do-Hyoung Park chose to pit the Browns and Titans in a hypothetical AFC Championship as a form of sympathy towards fellow hopeless teams. Let him know if the Vikings could beat either team in the imaginary Super Bowl with the lowest TV ratings of all time at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is the Minnesota Twins beat reporter at MLB.com, having somehow ensured that his endless hours sunk into The Daily became a shockingly viable career. He was previously the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily for FY17-18. He also covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season.