Guest Column: It’s taken a while, but the concussion issue in football finally is being taken seriously

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The following editorial appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday, Oct. 14:

The future was looking bright for a young University of Houston quarterback. He had chalked up an impressive record on the football field with 41 touchdown passes and a total of 6,039 offensive yards in 20 career starts.

Unfortunately, along with putting up outstanding numbers with his pass completions, David Piland suffered a number of concussions, the last one in a Sept. 7 game.

Last week, the university announced Piland’s career is over because of those head injuries. His coach emphasized that “our medical staff knows for his future and well-being he can no longer play.”

That news came the same week PBS aired a two-hour Frontline documentary on the dangers of concussions in the National Football League. The documentary said the league has known for years that head injuries in the sport were contributing to brain disease but consistently denied a connection. Thus the title of the documentary, “League of Denial.”

Frontline also alleged that the NFL, in protecting its own multibillion-dollar brand, misled players, enlisted or bullied doctors to discount scientific evidence of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and continued to put off thousands of ex-players who said football had led to their debilitating brain damage and mental health problems.

On Aug. 29, the league and representatives of the 4,500 former players who sued it announced a $765 million settlement of the lawsuit. The agreement contains no admission of liability by the NFL.

But the NFL now knows the issue of concussions, their consequences cannot be ignored, and the settlement of a lawsuit will not make it go away.

Head injury concerns are now part of the public conscience, not just for professional football but for college, high school and all the way down to the Pop Warner programs that include kids as young as five. Over the past few years, at all levels of play, rules have been changed to lessen head injuries, and new administrative policies, outlining what happens to a player who suffers a concussion during practice or a game, have been implemented.

Unlike in the not-too-distant past when a woozy player was told, “Shake it off and get back in there,” the NFL has a protocol for deciding when a player has suffered a concussion and determining at what point he can be allowed to play again. In addition, the league has instituted prohibitions against certain hits to the neck and head and has outlined stronger penalties (including suspensions) for violators.

The University Interscholastic League, which governs Texas high school athletics, has devised new training programs for coaches and players about proper hitting techniques and limits full contact in practice to 90 minutes a week. The UIL also worked with the Texas Legislature on a law passed in 2011 requiring all school districts and charter schools to have a Concussion Oversight Team that includes at least one licensed physician and no coaches or school officials. That law also requires when a student is suspected of suffering a concussion, he must be evaluated by a treating physician of the athlete’s or his parents’ choosing.

Students suffering concussions must be removed from competition immediately and cannot return to practice or a game until he or she has been evaluated and cleared in writing by the treating physician.

Some people are concerned the all-American sport of football is being watered down or made so soft by these new regulations that the game will be ruined or perhaps even abolished. There’s little chance of that.

The game, to which many are so fully devoted, will be around for a long time. That means even though progress has been made in addressing one important category of athletic injuries, we can’t stop there. More studies still need to be done, and those who govern the sport at all levels must be willing to adopt additional meaningful changes to protect those who play.