A Changing Game: How the NFL’s New Rules Have Affected Concussions, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and the Future of Contact Sports



As a loyal Kansas City Chiefs fan for the last decade, I have lived through forgettable season followed by forgettable season. I remember watching the Indianapolis Colts erase a 28-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Chiefs in the Wildcard Game in 2014. One could imagine how excited I was about this season with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, and few fans were more disappointed watching the referees bail out the New England Patriots on what seemed like one of the worst penalty calls ever – a penalty called because of a new rule instituted this past season.

Throughout this entire past season, the NFL has been the subject of scrutiny for its new rules on tackling allowances and extreme protection for quarterbacks (1). But what has been the impact of these new rules? Do they actually decrease the number of head injuries?

According to an article published by the Guardian, the NFL has seen a 24% decrease in overall concussive injuries in all preseason and regular season games from 2017 to the 2018 season. The NFL credits this dramatic drop in concussions to two major factors. The first being the elimination of head-to-head tackling and the second being formational changes on kickoffs. Compared to the 281 concussions diagnosed in 2017, 214 concussions were diagnosed this year (2).

This dramatic decrease in concussions deserves a lot of praise. With more specialists and team doctors having more autonomy and prevalence with the teams, diagnoses should be more accurate in today’s game. This means that this decrease in concussion numbers is not the byproduct of ignorance on the part of the team’s medical staff but a byproduct of actual rule effectiveness. The NFL was also quick to praise the new helmet technologies utilized by players this season as helmets like the “Vicis Zero1” are designed differently than previous traditional helmets and aim to reduce the force felt by the skull and the brain (3).

While the NFL and medical professionals praise the decrease in concussive injuries this season, fans and pundits have been quick to criticize the league. New rules protecting players, especially quarterbacks, lead to bad penalties like the aforementioned one on the Chiefs and can dramatically alter the outcome of games. In the next few seasons, the NFL will have to walk a delicate line of protecting player safety while trying to maintain the integrity of the game.

But while the NFL is making strides to better protecting its players, other contact sports like soccer or hockey need to begin making similar changes. Soccer fans are quick to remember goalkeeper Petr Chech’s injury that required emergency surgery for a skull fracture (4). Hockey fans remember Sidney Crosby being sidelined for a year before doctors were able to accurately treat his concussions and head and neck injuries (5). Whether it be better protection for goalies in soccer or changes to the rules for checking in hockey, other sports need to address how head injuries can impact their respective games and, like the NFL, create more effective rules to protect their players while trying to remain true to their sport. The NFL’s changes this year should serve as a beacon to other leagues to begin making their own changes to protect players.

As a Chiefs fan, I will always blame the referees for not making the Super Bowl in 2019. But it is commendable that the NFL has seen such a dramatic decrease in concussion figures this year while improving diagnosis protocols. In the next few years, football, soccer, hockey, and other contact sports will have the challenge of trying to appease fans and pundits while protecting players from concussions and traumatic brain injuries. It is important to realize that the rule changes enacted at the professional level do not stay confined there but go on to create a safer game for college, high school, and elementary athletes alike. The impact of traumatic brain injuries is just beginning to be understood, but armed with these new understandings, it will be possible to create a better, safer game for the next generation of athletes.

Edited by: Anthony Wu

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