Editorial: Football goes halfway on risks of concussion

Monday, July 14, 2014
The country’s most popular spectator sport is also one of the most dangerous. Both the National Football League and the governing body for college sports moved ahead this week with plans to address a top danger: concussion. The NFL will compensate players who’ve suffered from concussions. The NCAA will help athletes avoid these serious head injuries.

That’s progress, but the hazards inherent in football remain. In a landmark class action settlement with more than 4,500 former players, the NFL is expected to pay more than $870 million to address a problem whose name is finally being spoken.

This news may prompt a new generation of players and parents to face up to — and perhaps reject — this sport’s well-established neurological risks.

The NFL’s payments, and the NCAA’s new guidelines to limit the number of “contact practices” teams hold, will help players. They also serve to burnish the image of these organizations, which depend on a stream of talented athletes willing to risk injury and long-term disability for glories on the field. Both groups take in a lot of money doing so — nearly $10 billion a year in revenues for the NFL.

On Monday, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled in support of an initial agreement that would trigger payments to thousands of former professional football players who suffer health problems linked to concussions. Among them are gridiron stars of the past, such as Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears, who suffers from dementia, and Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett.

The legal breakthrough came after the NFL agreed to drop a $675 million cap its lawyers had proposed for monetary damages to players, which the judge deemed inadequate to address the scale of need.

The settlement will speed payments to players — and there is justice in that. How much they get will depend on age and the severity of their illness. The younger the player, the more he will get. For instance, a newly retired athlete with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) would receive $5 million, while an 80-year-old with early dementia would be paid $25,000. The league also agrees, in the settlement, to provide $10 million for medical research and $75 million for medical tests to establish a baseline for understanding the consequences of concussions.

Meantime, the NCAA’s new practice guidelines show at least some awareness that colleges themselves are a party to injuries student athletes suffer. As with the NFL, piles of money are at stake for the NCAA — and that likely nudged this awakening. The group says schools should conduct only two contact practices per week during the season. Here, the NCAA lags some schools, such as those in the Ivy League and the Pac-12, which already have that rule.

Along with lessening the risk of concussion, the NCAA is advising schools not to neglect the academic impact of these injuries. It is pitching a “return to learn” program for athletes recovering from concussions.

Well, yes. That such a thing needs to be suggested says a lot about the main goal of athletics departments: get the players fixed up enough physically to get back onto the field for the glory of the alma mater. The NCAA also advises schools to hire independent doctors to evaluate athletes’ injuries. These doctors should be the only ones able — not coaches or trainers — to clear a player’s return, the group says.

Good ideas, but unfortunately they remain guidelines, not rules.

The NCAA wants to appear to be taking players’ interests seriously, but as long as it leaves this all up to coaches, there cannot be real and lasting reform. Future players and families, take note. It’s fundamentally up to you to prevent life-changing head injuries.