Helmet headaches for NFL

By Stephanie Saviola

Recent head injuries have been popping up in the news, like the Rutgers University player who was paralyzed after a severe hit during a game and three concussions during NFL games over the past few weekends.

The NFL is starting to fine players for helmet-to-helmet hits and if the hits continue, the league said it will suspend players. This announcement, of course, has received harsh criticism from the football community. Pittsburgh Steeler’s linebacker James Harrison, who was fined $75,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit, has since said he is contemplating retirement because the fines.

But fines and regulations, while they are a step in the right direction, are prolonging the discussion of the real issue. Players, specifically linemen, receive relentless hits each week and during practice time. This will not only lead to concussions, but severe long-term brain injuries that may be irreversible.

A narrative published in GQ magazine titled “Brain Game” brought attention to the severity of the real issue at hand; head injuries during players’ careers have a dramatic impact on their post-career life. The piece followed a coroner who examined hall-of-famer Mike Webster, who essentially turned into a raving lunatic after going into retirement, as there are claims he super-glued his teeth and purchased a Taser gun to shock himself.

There are numerous reports and research showing these hits can have severe ramifications later in life, especially post-retirement, when the funds from players’ heydays have run out and they can’t cover their medical bills.

Much like “punch-drunk syndrome” or dementia pugilistica from boxing, hard head-to-head contact during football games over the years can have similar effects on the brain. The syndrome is caused by the loss of neurons in the cerebellum.

Players are risking their lives for entertainment purposes and the billions of dollars it brings the league.

Players’ helmets are made with a polycarbonate hard shell, which is designed to absorb hard hits, but the foam inside is not meant to reduce the frequency of concussions.

According to a December 2009 New York Times article, there has been controversy and concerns among the league’s helmet regulations, concussion committee and a helmet testing facility. According to the report, 80 percent of the league players use Riddell helmets, the official helmet of the NFL.

Helmets, while they protect, can only do so much. How do you make change to an American sport that has been around for more than a hundred years?

In a 15 to 20 year football career or any other heavy contact sport a fine will not stop the result of every hard hit. Eventually the damage will accumulate, creating problems after the big game is over and the player has made his last professional tackle.

While the league should fine the players for helmet-to-helmet hits, they should also look into stricter helmet standards and proper medical care for retired players.