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Is Troy Aikman Right that NFL Players Should Accept Concussions as a Part of Football?

Last week, former Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Troy Aikman was quoted as saying,
"At some point I think players have to understand that there are certain risks that are involved, and if you decide that you want to go out and play football, then you've got to understand that part of that means you're going to break some bones and you may have some head injuries. But if you try to eliminate all of those things, then we're no longer playing football."
I don't disagree that players should be prepared for injuries and they have to accept that potential injuries are a part of the game. Nor do I disagree that you can't completely eliminate hard hits and the associated injuries from football without watering the game down and removing the elements that have made it so popular with fans.

Rather, the disagreement lies with the (unintentional*) implication this statement creates that head injuries are an unavoidable part of the game that players just have to accept in order to play. Fact is that there are several steps that could easily be taken to lessen the danger of sustaining a head injury without affecting the on-field play.

Dr. Gerald Maher, the team dentist for the New England Patriots, has designed a mouthpiece that dramatically reduces concussions caused by hits to the jaw. In fact, according to Mayer, this simple device has virtually eliminated concussions of that type for players who have worn them.

The NFL itself has stated that approximately 70% of concussions are caused by blows to the chin. Which is why it is especially puzzling that the NFL has continually rebuffed Dr. Maher's efforts to initiate a relationship with them.

Additionally, in spite of all the rules the NFL has concerning things as mundane as the type of socks a player can wear, they have steadfastly refused to mandate the use of concussion reducing helmets, despite their availability.

There are currently several helmets on the market that incorporate alternative designs in order to reduce factors which contribute to brain injuries. One such helmet, the Riddell Revolution has been proven in independent studies to lesson the risk of concussions by as much as 31%.

Both of these technical advances could potentially eliminate many of the concussions players suffer without eliminating any of the spectacular hits that fans pay to see each week, simply by reducing the amount of force that is transferred to players brains by those impacts.

More importantly in relation to Aikman's comment, are the non equipment-related issues surrounding concussion risk. Just the act of allowing a concussion to heal properly is a major key to avoiding further complications from head trauma. Additionally, it has been shown that returning too soon leaves players even more susceptible to another concussion.

However, the tape it up and get back in there mentality is common among football players. As a result, many players feel pressured to return before they are fully healed or even to not report concussions at all.

Just one example of this was when Brian Westbrook, of the Philadelphia Eagles, attempted to play less than two weeks after sustaining a major concussion against the Redskins. Westbrook subsequently suffered another concussion and has since said that he contemplated retirement, as a result.

As was evident from the negative reactions of their teammates when Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner skipped games after a concussion, that pressure to play at any cost is hardly an isolated situation within the NFL. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to addressing concussion-related issues is the prevalence of those attitudes among the league's players.

Such a mentality isn't so bad when you have a sprained ankle or a broken finger, but it's a lot different when you are talking about brain injuries. Limping in your old age doesn't even begin to compare to not being able to function because your brain is scrambled.

The onus is of course on the National Football League to ensure proper equipment is available and to compel players to use that equipment. A business that generates eight billion dollars a year marketing its players should have the foresight to ensure those players aren't taken out of the game prematurely by injuries that are preventable.

Obviously, the players also have a huge personal stake in preventing unnecessary injuries. Which is all the more reason Troy Aikman, who himself had to retire early because of repeated concussions, should know better than to perpetuate those attitudes which have prevented players from properly dealing with concussion symptoms.

*Aikman was discussing the over-regulation of hits on QB's, rather than concussions, specifically. As stated, this article relates to the implications of his statement, not the actual intent.
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