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Is the NFL Making Progress in Its Concussion Protocols?

Has heightened public attention generated results?
(Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

(Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Concussions in the National Football League have become a topic of public interest in recent years, whether we're talking about Will Smith's latest movie or looking at the changes the league has initiated on the ground.

Now we have to ask: Does all this public attention generate results?

An analysis released on Saturday found that, in 2015, the NFL witnessed the most reported concussions since 2012. The key word here is "reported," as analysts try to understand whether concussions are more actually common, or whether players are more likely to report possible injuries. Today's players are under increased supervision, including the watchful eyes of unaffiliated neurotrauma experts who sit on the sidelines.

According to the Chicago Tribune:

"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.

"Being on the sideline as an unaffiliated neuro-trauma 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."

If the increase in reported concussions really is the result of a culture shift, it's long overdue, especially in a sport that appeals to so many children.

As Pacific Standard reported in 2012, addressing concussions is critical for the NFL's growth. If organizations like Pop Warner are going to continue holding games—and creating new football fans—the league needs to convince parents that the sport is, in fact, safe.

From our archives:

New studies appear routinely highlighting the dangers of repetitive on-field hits, and the NFL is facing the mounting legal challenges—to date there are more than 3,962 player-plaintiffs in 182 cases—and the bad press that goes along with them.

In September of 2012, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health. And, recently, it announced a new cartoon show on Nickelodeon. Some are reading this and the Heads Up Football program as part of a broader public relations strategy by the NFL.

Daniel Durbin, a professor at the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California says there is a long history of shifting blame away from the product or corporation by leaning on the American ideal of personal responsibility.

"The very best illustration is 'drink responsibly'," Durbin says. "We will sell you enough alcohol to make you a walking zombie, but it's your responsibility to take the amount of alcohol that you can safely consume until you drop over and die."

Change may be slow, but it's inevitable. The 2015–16 NFL season saw players suffer 190 concussions. One of those players was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who left the field after absorbing a viscous hit during a game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Steelers lost, but, after following the protocol, Roethlisberger was fine.