Concussions remain common even as awareness improves

Sat Jan 30, 2016 3:47pm EST
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By Andrew Both

(Reuters) - Two decades after the NFL brushed off concussion concerns as being of interest only to journalists, the issue is at the forefront of any discussion about player safety and unlikely to go away anytime soon.

From the 2015 film "Concussion" about a doctor who fought the NFL's campaign to conceal his research on the brain damage suffered by players, to a lawsuit over brain injuries that could cost America's most popular sports league $1 billion, it is an issue that has the league playing defense.

And while some experts say there has been a sea change in the league's attitude over the past few years, concussions still occur with alarming regularity.

There were 182 concussions reported in the 2015 regular season, up sharply from 115 in 2014, according to figures released by the league, and reversing a downward trend from the previous three years.

Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), warned not to jump to conclusions about the 2015 number, saying it did not necessarily mean there were more concussions but rather could reflect better expertise at diagnosing the condition.

Under the NFL's concussion protocol started in 2013, each team is assigned an independent neurotrauma specialist who is not on the team's payroll. There is also a "spotter" who can stop a game if they see a player showing concussion-like symptoms.

But critics argue that the specialist can only advise a team to remove a player with suspected concussion from the game while the final decision still lies with the club doctor, potentially a conflict of interest.

There were several incidents this season when the system failed, most notably last November when St. Louis quarterback Case Keenum remained in a game even after struggling to get up and appearing woozy after his head slammed to the turf.   Continued...

NFL team helmets are displayed at the NFL Headquarters in New York December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid