While the NFL is currently the most popular it has ever been, there is one issue that hangs over the head and future of the game—concussions. The traumatic brain injury has been part of football since the beginning, but it’s only in the past generation or so that medical science and public awareness of the long-term effects of concussions have really come to the forefront.
We know now that repeated blows to the head can be a cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE leads to memory loss, depression, dementia and, in the worst cases, suicides. After players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson committed suicide, autopsies and researchers found that their brains showed clear signs of CTE. In addition, players like Brett Favre, Jim McMahon and Jamal Lewis have reported signs of memory loss and dementia, which are strong indicators of brain damage stemming from their playing days.
In recent years, the NFL has made significant strides in attempting to stem the tide of concussions. They’ve made multiple rule changes to protect players during action. They’ve implemented a strict protocol requiring players to be cleared by an unaffiliated physician before they can return to the field after suffering a concussion. They’ve funded research into better safety equipment and attempted to change the culture surrounding the game to help protect players. Still, the concussions continue to pile up. It’s not hyperbole to state that this is the most significant health crisis the sport has faced since skull fractures and excessive violence and on-field deaths spurred the formation of the NCAA and the introduction of the first leather helmets at the beginning of the 20th century.
Numbers and statistics only start to tell the story of the NFL’s issues with concussions, but cold hard facts can sometimes put things into a larger perspective. Here are 15 of those facts and figures that you may not have known.
15 Concussions Went Up in 2015
After three consecutive years of seeing concussions go down, the NFL reported a significant uptick in the number of concussions suffered in 2015. The league’s data shows that 271 concussions were reported during the preseason and regular season last year, 65 more than were reported in 2014 and the highest number since 2012. This is despite all the new regulations and safety measure put into play. The NFL hopes this is due to players reporting concussions that previously would have been ignored, but it’s something that they’ll have to keep a close eye on going forward.
14 Not All Concussions Are Reported
That 271-concussion number is something of a surprise, because that’s not how many you would have counted if you had looked at the weekly injury reports. In 2013, PBS found nearly a third were not listed, thanks to injury reports not being required during training camp or bye weeks, or after the final game of the regular season for non-playoff teams. It’s impossible to get a full picture of the extent of the NFL’s concussion problems if nearly a third of the concussions aren’t reported.
13 At Least 100 Concussions Were Left Out of NFL Reports
From 1996 to 2001, the NFL gathered data to try to discover the long-term effects of concussions, recording 887 concussions in their dataset. When The New York Times got access to it and began decoding the data, however, they discovered that many concussions to star players were not recorded. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, reported no concussions, despite that explicitly leading to Troy Aikman’s retirement.
12 Nearly Half of Players with Concussions Do Not Miss a Game
PBS found that 49.5% of players with concussions from 2012-2013 returned to action without missing a full game and more than a quarter returned to action after missing just one. The American Academy of Neurology reports that athletes are a greater risk of head injury within ten days of suffering a concussion= and that by returning to the field so quickly, they risk long-term complications.
11 More Concussions Occur Later in the Year
If concussions were simply a random result of larger hits, you would expect them to be roughly evenly distributed throughout the year, with players just as likely to receive a concussion in Week 2 as they are in Week 16. However, in 2012 and 2013, PBS found that there were 38 more concussions in the last eight weeks of the season than there were in the first nine. It is theorized that the more sub-concussive hits a player takes, the more vulnerable they become to suffering a major concussion, and that the wear and tear of a full NFL season might increase players’ risks for suffering head injuries.
10 Cornerbacks and Wide Receivers Suffer the Most Concussions...
PBS’s study also tracked the concussions by position, and the results are perhaps unsurprising. As the two positions that spend the most time running full-speed in the open field, cornerbacks and wide receivers led the way in reported concussions, with 49 each. Safety wasn’t far behind, with 39 reported concussions. The entire offensive line, by comparison, reported only 45 concussions over their two-year study period. It turns out, running at full speed and crashing into armored up athletes may not be the best thing for your brain.
9 …But Linemen Take the Most Hits
8 Brain Trauma Effects a Third of NFL Players
The NFL has admitted in court documents that they expect nearly a third of retired NFL players to develop long-term cognitive issues and that they will suffer problems earlier in life than the general population. This is the most blunt admission by the league that they have known about the long-term effects of football on the brain, even before they began changing the on-field rules to better protect players.
7 Half of Concussions Are Caused by Contact with Another Helmet
One of the reason the NFL has gotten so strict about controlling helmet-to-helmet contact in games, to the point where players are being penalized despite not realistically being able to avoid contact, is because that is by far the most common source of head injuries. In 2012 and 2013, about half of all concussions suffered during play were a result of contact with another helmet, far more than any other source. While hard plastic helmets still do far more good than harm—the NFL hasn’t had a skull fracture since the 1980s—they are some of the more dangerous objects to smash one’s head into.
6 87 of the 91 Deceased Players Studied Had Brain Disease
The Department of Veteran Affairs have studied the brains from 91 deceased NFL players. In all but four cases, they found signs of CTE. When added to the semi-pro and collegiate players they studied, they found CTE in just under 80 percent of all the brains they studied. While it’s not a representative sample—players volunteered for the study because they showed symptoms or had other suspicions of potential brain damage—it’s definitely concerning. As there is no test for CTE in living players at the moment, this is the best evidence we have of the long-term effects of concussions; while it’s unlikely that more than 95 percent of active players in the NFL will have brain disease going forward, they definitely are far more at risk than the average person.
5 The NFL Approved a $675 Million Settlement for Retired Players with Concussions…
In the original settlement between the NFL and a group of former players, including former Super Bowl stars like Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon, the NFL agreed to pay out $675 million in damages to help cover retired players who suffer from ALS, dementia, and other neurological disorders that could result from concussions. In addition, they added $75 million more for baseline testing and $10 million for medical research and education.
4 …But Now They’re Paying More
In 2014, the NFL agreed to remove that $675 million cap, because of questions as to whether it would be enough to cover up to 20,000 retired players who might need help over the next 65 years. While both the NFL and the players who submitted the lawsuit doubt that the NFL will end up paying more than the originally agreed upon amount, there’s now a set a formula for retirees based on their age and level of brain disease. Including interest and legal fees, the NFL is now expected to pay more than $1 billion thanks to the settlement.
3 Over 5,000 Former Players Have Sued the NFL Over Head Injuries
That billion-dollar settlement came from a lawsuit filed by more than 5,000 players, all bundled up into one mega-lawsuit for easier adjudication. Over 200 individual lawsuits were filed over several years, as different groups of players got together to try to receive damages from the NFL for the injuries they suffered while playing. Most of them have accepted the overall settlement, even though it also means the NFL may never have to fully disclose what they knew about the risks of concussions in the past.
2 200 Players Did Not Accept the Settlement
The settlement, as designed, covers not only the 5,000 players who sued, but every retired player at the time of the settlement last year. That wasn’t enough for some players, however—around 200 former players opted out, deciding to instead sue the NFL individually for various reasons. Some of them didn’t feel the NFL, which makes $10 billion a year, was offering enough money in the settlement, and others wanted a greater admittance of fault from the NFL. The list of players who opted out includes notable names like Tony Dorsett, Calvin Hill, and Andre Reed, as well as Junior Seau’s extended family.
1 We Still Don’t Know How Many Concussions Actually Occur
If you look at the data of reported concussions from last year, there’s a wide gap between teams with the most concussions and the least. Over the past few years, the Cincinnati Bengals have averaged 17 concussions a year, while the Miami Dolphins have averaged three. While there’s surely some luck in play, a more likely reason would be different standards of reporting at different franchises. Concussions can be tricky to diagnose—it’s not like a torn ACL or something which is fairly definitive. We’re still in the first steps of understanding precisely how concussions effect the brain, and as such, we don’t really have a universal standard or test for determining if someone is concussed. There’s still a lot of work to be done to even fully understand concussions, much less eliminate them.