The NFL’s Player Safety Facade

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Usually, players are quickly taken off the field after suffering a serious head injury. The cameras stop recording them and the game goes on. Fans forget about it.

After one play three years ago, this was not the case.

On Thursday Night Football, All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly attempted to make a tackle on Saints running back Tim Hightower, who lowered his helmet as he braced for contact. As a result, Kuechy’s helmet collided with Hightower’s. The hit didn’t initially look serious. As Kuechly was being tended to by medical workers, color commentator Cris Collinsworth speculated that Kuechly suffered a leg injury. He also mentioned that Kuechly was sobbing, which the broadcast proceeded to show. As players from both teams kneeled around the former Defensive Player of the Year who looked on with lifeless eyes, Bank of America Stadium was completely silent. The situation seemed bizarre for what appeared to be a leg injury. Watering eyes is one thing, but an NFL player sobbing like a child isn’t something anybody is accustomed to seeing.

Collinsworth acknowledged that he wasn’t sure what was going on.

He wasn’t the only one.

Christian Fauria was speaking out of experience — he is a former NFL player who had also suffered concussions during his career. He surely understood Kuechly’s dilemma.

But for the fans, this was the first time the television broadcast gave us a first-hand experience of the nightmarish concept of head injuries. Grown men who many fans view as invincible gladiators are brought to tears due to confusion.

At this moment, they feel helpless.

After football takes its toll on their body, they are stuck with this feeling for the rest of their lives.

In December 2017, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was the one who lowered his head before making contact with the opposing player. Shazier immediately collapsed and was unable to move his legs as he instinctively reached for his back. He was revealed to have suffered from a spinal contusion. He hasn’t played since and it’s unclear if he’ll ever play again.

Shazier was tackling this way his entire career without NFL coaches or officials telling him to change. There was an increasing amount of pressure against the NFL, which led to them creating a rule heading into the next season. The rule made it illegal if “a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”

In the 2018-19 season, officials called this penalty just 17 times.

For reference, a penalty for grabbing the face mask was called 19 times over this span. That is, it was called 19 times against the offense. On both sides of the ball, NFL officials called the flag on 89 different occasions.

One might argue that players have adapted and the rule isn’t broken much more often than the flag is called.


Four players committing a penalty simultaneously on the same play is no coincidence. This is the way they have always played and will always play until the NFL actually begins to enforce their new rule.

There have been plenty of helmet-to-helmet hits this year where an official had a perfect line of sight on the play and chose not to throw the flag. Linebacker Jaylon Smith infamously collided with Alvin Kamara’s head while leading with his head. Kamara promptly struggled to stand up properly. As the broadcast allowed officiating expert Mike Pereira to give his opinion on the play, he said, “We haven’t seen many called this year, but that’s a clear example of leading with the crown of the helmet.” If the NFL cares so much about the safety of their players, should they not be calling these flags to actually discourage these extremely dangerous plays?

A few days ago, the NFL announced that there were 214 recorded concussions in 2018 compared to a record-high 281 in 2017. Initially, it would appear as if these changes were working and player safety is improving. However, examining all concussion totals since the information became public in 2012 makes it seem far more likely that this decrease is due to chance.

(All data includes the preseason, regular season and postseason, except for 2018 because the postseason is still in progress.)

Do you see a pattern? I don’t.

In a scientific study, this data would be considered insignificant and the hypothesis would be duly rejected.

The lack of a pattern isn’t surprising because the system is flawed. These are only the diagnosed concussions — there are almost certainly many more concussions that have gone unnoticed. Concussion screenings don’t take place for every player after every game — they occur if a referee requires it or if somebody (the team or the player themselves) notices symptoms. Occasionally the referee requires a player to get screened for a concussion and the player doesn’t even go through with it.

A great example of the lack of accuracy in the NFL’s concussion reports is the story of Junior Seau.

In 2012, Pro Football Hall of Famer Junior Seau was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Initially, people speculated that Seau was suffering from brain damage due to CTE (a condition which depression is a symptom of) because many deceased former NFL players were found to have it.

However, Seau had never sustained a concussion according to NFL injury reports.

After his brain tissue was donated to the National Institutes of Health, the NIH concluded that Seau did indeed suffer from definitive CTE, which is caused by concussions.

It’s essentially a guarantee that players suffer from concussions which go unreported or undiagnosed. CTE takes their toll on them without them ever knowing.

Don’t let the league’s data fool you.

The one good thing that the NFL does is going back to previous games to fine players who violated the safety rules.

For example, the league fined the aforementioned Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith of $26,739 for his illegal hit on Alvin Kamara. It’s a good decision to fine these players to discourage them from continuing to play dangerously.

However, Michael Thomas was fined $30,000 for using a cell phone during a touchdown celebration.

The NFL deemed that the same type of play that nearly left Ryan Shazier paralyzed and that could have seriously concussed Alvin Kamara was not as bad as a player using a prop during a celebration.

The league clearly doesn’t have their priorities straightened out.