The NFL Unfolds a Standardized Concussion Test. Took Them Long Enough

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Concussion detection is crucial, but could have been tackled long ago.

Over the past year, the NFL has been proactive in trying to keep its players safer. The league created stricter “return-to-play” guidelines for head injuries: for example, a player is no longer allowed to get back on the field the same day he suffers a concussion. After witnessing a set of violent head-to-head hits in October, which caused multiple concussions, the NFL increased fines for players who used their helmets as a weapon.

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The NFL took another positive on Friday, when it announced that all teams will be employing a standardized sideline concussion test. The new protocol combines a symptom checklist, a cognitive evaluation and a balance assessment for players struck in the head during a game. Prior to this initiative, the concussions tests were not consistent, so teams could arrive at different conclusions as to whether a player suffered a dangerous head injury.

Give the NFL credit for trying.  Last week’s suicide of former Pro Bowler Dave Duerson, who appeared to be showing early signs of cognitive impairment, and requested, right before his death, that his brain be donated to concussion research, brought even more attention to safety risks inherent in football.

But when you take a step back and look at the league’s latest reform, you can’t help but wonder: What in the world took so long?

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Something as simple as a standardized test for in-game concussions should have been employed decades ago. It should have especially began four years ago, when horror stories involving the struggles of former players, and the damage the game likely did to their brains, started trickling out in earnest, thanks, for the most part, to the reporting of the New York Times. Right away, medical personnel should have decided on a rigorous, and effective, concussion assessment test that all the teams could use. Over these past four years, how much further damage did inconsistent and ineffective tests cause to the brains of NFL players?

And while the NFL’s latest reform is admirable, it still doesn’t get to root of football’s concussion crisis: repeated blows to the head.

Sure, a strong concussion test will help prevent players from returning to the field too soon, and inflicting further damage to an injured brain. But what about reducing head hits in the first place? Harsher fines for needless helmet hits will surely reduce some violence. What football really needs, however, it to teach toned-down tackling techniques – don’t lead with your head! – from pros down through Pop Warner. The game also needs to think of more radical changes, like requiring linemen to stand upright, instead of crouched down, to reduce the forces of their repeated head collisions. Or keeping kids out of helmets and pads until, say, high school, thus reducing overall blows to the head.

Detecting concussions is important. But increasingly it looks as if what’s key is not detection or treatment, but outright prevention.