The National Football League released a new injury report Friday that said the number of concussions diagnosed in 2015 had increased by 32 percent from the previous year.
The NFL said 271 concussions were diagnosed in 2015, up from 206 in 2014. The league reported 229 concussions in 2013; it said there were 261 in 2012.
As the medical community continues to find evidence linking concussions in football to CTE, a degenerative brain disease, and former NFL players like the Steelers’ Antwaan Randle El are speaking out against playing football, the NFL is under more pressure than ever to cut down on players’ head injuries.
It has taken steps to limit the number and mitigate the effects of concussions. From penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits and fining egregious instances of “targeting” to assigning impartial spotters to remove concussed players from play, and increasing education and awareness about head trauma, the league is trying to make the game safer.
But is it working?
Perhaps paradoxically, league officials point to the higher number of diagnosed concussions as progress.
“I see culture change,” said Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Being on the sideline as an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, the culture has changed. I see coaches report players and pull them out of the game. I see players report themselves,” he said, according to the newspaper. “I see players report each other. That’s certainly new and different.”
This rosy assessment may sound promising, but it’s also almost exactly what league officials said more than five years ago, when diagnosed concussions increased 21 percent from the first half of the 2009 season to the first half of the 2010 season. Based on NFL data obtained, The Associated Press wrote this in 2010:
“Dr. Hunt Batjer, co-chairman of the NFL’s head, neck and spine medical committee, calls the numbers ‘a great sign’ because they show ‘the culture is changed.’
“‘Based on the opinions of the trainers and the team physicians and everyone we communicate with, it appears to be a cultural change,’ Batjer told the AP.”
So changing the culture is possible; the harder part will be changing the game to reduce concussions. In 10 or 15 years, if concussion diagnoses are still increasing every season, will league officials still be praising the efficacy of concussion education and awareness in football? When does culture change result in less concussions?