At 10 o’clock last Saturday night, I was preparing for the evening’s carousing, sipping brews with some buddies and watching the Stanford-Oregon game. It was a typical Saturday night college scene: a room full of frat-bros talking boisterously, half paying attention to the football game as we aired grievances and exchanged the latest gossip – until something caught our attention. Midway through the third quarter, Stanford junior wide receiver Chris Owusutook a hard helmet-to-helmet tackle after making a third down catch, fumbling on the play. Owusu did not scramble to recover the ball, or shake his head in grief as the Oregon Ducks easily ran the ball back for six points on the turnover. He lay motionless, face-down on the field.
Stanford’s medical staff rushed to his side, but Owusu remained immobile. It was a sobering image to a room full of carefree revelers. We thought he might have been dead. After several minutes, they were finally able to roll Owusu over and help him off the field.Just a few minutes later, the football game resumed, and in no time, my friends and I had moved on as if nothing had happened.
A few weeks prior, I was having dinner with some friends, two ex-Bulldog football players forced into early retirement due to injuries of their own. One of them had to give up the sport after sustaining five or six concussions. He recalled “totally blacking out” on the field, and playing several games in a confused haze. Ultimately, it became unsustainable, and he wisely chose to give up the sport out of concerns for future health. My friend’s story is not unique, and he shared other similar accounts of teammates at Yale, including a player who finally quit after his eighth concussion.
In our conversation, he made it seem as if concussionsare a natural part of football. And perhaps this is true to an extent; when 300-pound men don pads and charge at one another, injuries are bound to happen. That said, there was nothing natural in the way Chris Owusu laid sprawled out on the field last Saturday night. While the vast majority of college juniors in this country were relaxing or entertaining themselves on the most cherished night of our busy week, this one was severely hurt.
Sure, concussions happen all the time in sports, not just football, and most athletes go on to have continued success in competition, leading healthy and normal lives off the field. That said, as fans, athletes, friends and family members, we do not take sports concussions seriously enough. I have never experienced a concussion myself, and I am in no position to judge the severity of their impact, but this description, found in an article inyesterday’s New York Times on football concussions paints a scary image: concussions generally occur “when the head either accelerates rapidly and then is stopped, or is spun rapidly. This violent shaking causes the brain cells to become depolarized and fire all their neurotransmitters at once in an unhealthy cascade, flooding the brain with chemicals and deadening certain receptors linked to learning and memory. The results often include confusion, blurred vision, memory loss, nausea and, sometimes, unconsciousness.”
The article is evidence of a greater media attention to this issue in recent years, leading to improved helmet design and Congressional hearings aimed at amending the rules regarding concussions. It references several studies that show a significant inclination for football players to experience cognitive difficulty later in life after having concussions during their career.The studies estimated that 60% of NFL players had experienced a concussion during their professional careers. We could spend all day going through statistics that say “concussions are bad,” but one would hope that fact is obvious enough.
Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Congress has accused NFL Commissioner Goodell and a league-affiliated researcher on brain injuries of downplaying the results of their studies.Goodell maintains that the league’s policies properly protect athletes, but the policy only requires that players sit out the remainder of the game if they sustain a concussion with no reference to longer term effects.
When a league or an administration neglects to take the health of its athletes seriously, it is time for a change. Especially when we consider the ramifications of this insensitivity to such a serious concern.Concussions in the NFL are treated so casually, that it has become a feature of competitive football. The guys on the field in these games are those same men who, years before as college players proved their ability to succeed as professionals.
This hard hitting mindset with no regards towards a player’s future health has trickled down from the pros,and helmet-leading tackles are now the grounds by which some particularly tough players in college and high school distinguish themselves. This is especially dangerous as athletes continue to get faster, stronger, and bigger, and will only result in football at all levels becoming increasingly dangerous to the future health of its participants.
I do not propose any one solution to the problem—regulating tackles or improving helmet design can only go so far in addressing a much deeper issue:
In preparing to write this column, I thought I would quickly scan the internet to find the name of that Stanford wideout. Ten minutes and five different game recaps later, I finally found one article that mentioned Owusu’s fumble – reporting his concussion as just a mere afterthought.
It is a scary reality we find ourselves in when five minutes of tackle-induced immobility is given virtually no media attention.