The NFL's Concussion Problem: 5 Ways to Address the Issue Before it's Too Late

Concussions are a major problem in the game of football. Here's what one expert thinks should be done about it.

Jan 10, 2014 at 9:15AM

While the concussion problem today is an inconvenient truth for the game of football, the repercussions could be far more dramatic than last year's $760 million settlement with former players, and our fleeting distress every time an ex-NFLer is found dead as a result of game-related dementia. If public sentiment turns against the brutal violence of the sport, it could lose its place as "America's Game."

One researcher, Rodney K. Smith, has delved into this problem, and in the process, he may have found a few solutions. His study, published late last year and titled "Solving the Concussion Problem and Saving Professional Football," bases the crux of its research upon one underlying assumption: All levels of football are at risk if the NFL cannot get a handle on concussions.

The problem
This sentiment is nothing new. As Smith points out, Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul Barrett has warned of a loss in popularity, saying it "could, like boxing before it, drift toward the margins if researchers reveal...gridiron collisions are even more dangerous than we now know."

The very nature of football requires a certain amount of violence, which makes players more prone to head injuries. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that retirees develop conditions like dementia, depression, Alzheimer's, and CTE later in life.

The NFL is taking steps to address these issues by instituting subtle rule changes and increasing player fines.


Image via Caitlin Regan, Flickr.

But what about retired players? Unless the NFL can manage these cases, it doesn't matter how good the new statistics look. Smith's research puts forth five ways to address the problem.

1. Litigation
The first route he discusses is litigation. Lawsuits are one of the best ways retired players can receive "fair" injury compensation from the NFL. Before last summer's groundbreaking $760 million concussion settlement, about 25% of all retirees (4,500) took court action against the league.

Although some are happy with the result, many want more. Just this week, The New York Times reported that "doubts remain" over how many retirees will reject the deal, adding, "There is no rule for how many players must opt out before a judge will reconsider...but legal experts said it would have to be at least a substantial minority." ESPN recently revealed "many players" could opt out in favor of "individual trials."

Glenn M. Wong, another prominent figure in this arena, estimates that if all settlements fail -- an absolute worst-case scenario -- damages could cost the league as much as $10 billion. That's more than one year's worth of all NFL revenues. 

2. Workers' compensation
A less risky option, Smith suggests the NFL could also settle through a state-level workers' compensation commission. This would likely give less of a payout than litigation, but there's one benefit to retired players: They won't have to "prove fault," making it easier to get a minimum level of damages. The LA Times estimates a workers' comp deal would cost NFL teams around $1 billion total.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more commonly known as OSHA, has regulations on workplace safety that could apply to the NFL, something Slate's Daniel Engber has discussed. "OSHA's enforcement arm has had almost nothing to do with professional football," Engber wrote back in 2006, before admitting, they're only "likely to look into professional sports when someone dies." 

Smith notes that the lethality of some football-related conditions (like CTE) could warrant further involvement from the agency. He also points out that "OSHA can get involved fairly benefit current players," but it "has less authority to help players who have suffered due to past injuries." 

4. Legislation
The expert also discussed legislation at length. Between 2007 and 2010, Congress held hearings to talk about issues like NFL player safety, disability pay, and concussions. They focused on "how an industry that generates approximately $7 billion in annual revenue paid [only] $20 million in benefits to a total of 317 retirees." This implies more than 4,000 former players who are thought to have brain injuries aren't getting disability pay.

If Congress were to take an official legislative fight to the NFL, Smith says it could kill two birds with one stone.

A legislative body, however, may fashion both safety rules—as it has done in conjunction with OSHA in achieving workplace safety—and a compensation system that would be accessible to all former players—as it has done in the workers' compensation context.

5. Internal fix
It's also possible the NFL and NFLPA will adequately deal with the concussion problem internally. If former players can get a bigger seat at the negotiating table, and, as Smith puts it, " the cultural problem of playing through injuries" can be fixed, there's hope. 

Going forward
Of course, that's a big if, and I don't expect the culture to change anytime soon. Whether it's Ray Lewis or James Harrison, plenty of superstars continually criticize the league for its crackdown. Commissioner Roger Goodell's player-approval rating, in fact, is only 39% according to USA Today, indicating many simply don't understand what's at stake here. 

If the NFL is unable to improve its bill of health, it risks losing its spot as America's favorite sport over the long run. The league must focus on improving safety for existing players while offering better compensation for retirees. The potential solutions vary, but Rodney Smith has explored five of the best. Here's hoping the NFL front office is listening.

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