Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

20 Aug 2010

What Happens To A Linebacker's Neurons

Discover Magazine has a good article for those of us who are less medically-inclined, explaining what physically happens to the brain when it's repeatedly battered.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 20 Aug 2010

20 comments, Last at 24 Aug 2010, 4:05am by the cat in the box is dead


by billsfan :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 10:52am

Another, slightly related, news story is that Lou Gehrig may not have actually had his eponymous disease:


Great for grabbing a headline, but the gist of it is that the brain damage from repeated concussions may spread to the spine, but, as usual, the only diagnostic test is post-mortem. The study indicates ex-NFLers are about 8 times more likely to end up diagnosed with ALS.

(I also like the Eagles)

by chemical burn :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 10:59am

Seriously... all of the emerging information on concussions is starting to make it hard for me to enjoy the sport. I cringe any time I see a big hit now and wish the tackler would just wrap the guy up and not get his head anywhere near the point of impact...

by tuluse :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 2:52pm

I know how you feel. The worst part is how much I enjoy watching the big hits.

by Never Surrender (not verified) :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 4:39pm

The violence of football is the reason I've become, primarily, a rugby fan. There are jokes about how tough rugby is in comparison to football, but if you examine their rules governing tackles and hits, they make a lot more sense (IMHO) than what is permitted in the NFL. And in my anecdotal experience, there are many fewer serious injuries in rugby than in football.

In fact, the NFL could take a huge step towards solve its concussion / serious injury problem tomorrow by instituting something similar to what rugby employs:

(1) No leaving your feet to make the tackle (i.e., no launching yourself like a missile; you can leave your feet as the tackle is made, of course)
(2) You must wrap up; no 'body hits,' with your arms compact against your own body when tackling. (Say goodbye to the only hitting motion 95% of safeties use.)
(3) When wrapping up and going to ground, you cannot attempt to bodyslam and/or drive the opponent forcefully into the ground (this is penalized as a "dangerous tackle").

Do that, enforce the rules, and adopt much lighter padding, and the game would become much safer — overnight. I honestly believe that the NFL would have instituted something like this already if the safety of their players really was a top priority. I doubt that it truly is, though.

by tuluse :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 4:45pm

I think rules 2 and 3 would be difficult to enforce.

A big problem is that football, as it is, is fun. Players like to make big hits as much as (if not more) than people like watching them. The players aren't asking the union to make the game safer because it would take out their fun.

I also think if Rugby had athletes of the caliber than the NFL does, you would start to see a lot more problems.

by bravehoptoad :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 5:06pm

Surely no more difficult to enforce than offense holding, pass interference, or any of the tackle rules now in place (don't lead with your head, no clipping, etc.)

I've always heard that all the armor an NFL player wears is more dangerous than helpful. If you took away all that stuff, tackles would become necessarily less violent.

by dbostedo :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 5:08pm

The average tackle would probably become safer. But without rule changes, the big hits would still happen occasionally with worse results. People used to die playing football - and you'd see a lot more broken bones too.

by tuluse :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 9:21pm

Pass interference is the worst enforced rule in the league, and fans complain about blown calls literally every week.

by marcusm (not verified) :: Fri, 08/20/2010 - 10:02pm

Something along those lines actually could be a really great idea. Sure, it might be somewhat difficult to enforce, but the next time you're watching a game, pay attention to how many times player's opt for making some kind of shattering hit against the other time by flinging their body through the air when they could just as easily wrap the guy up and take him down. This happens all the time, and it really is not that players need to be spearing each other in order to tackle effectively. If you codified it, and gave players a reason to go for a wrap-up tackle rather than a spear tackle, there surely would be far fewer high-impact collisions going on. Wouldn't solve everything, but it'd be a start. As these studies make more headlines the league eventually will want to do something about it, though I imagine it'll take many years...

by Theo :: Sun, 08/22/2010 - 9:28am

Violence is half the game, that's why it's so fun to play and so fun to watch.

by chemical burn :: Sun, 08/22/2010 - 12:14pm

I disagree - with boxing or MMA, violence is half the game (or more.) I have no interest in seeing folks get brutalized or injured. With boxing, someone getting knocked out is part of the interest and that's why I have no interest. Football would be just as compelling with the violence reduced - I'm not saying flag football, but if the big hit of helpless recievers and QB's getting clocked were reduced altogther, I would not mind one bit. Just wrap up a QB and take him down, don't go for a knockout blow. Same thing for a safety trying to take of the head of a guy going across the middle - to me, the game loses nothing if he just plays the ball in the air and then goes for a wrap-up.

In the trenches is a more difficult questions, but I think a Sumo-style battle of arm-position and leg strength is just as compelling as an LB running full-bore in a fullback. I don't mind making the game softer at all, especially when you look at what a disgusting toll it takes on the athletes. I don't give a shit about tedious bloodsports like MMA - I like the strategy, controlled physicality and technique of football, not the "Jacked Up!" bullshit...

by tuluse :: Sun, 08/22/2010 - 12:57pm

Your two examples are actually already illegal. Actually, tackling a QB to the ground is frequently illegal too.

by chemical burn :: Sun, 08/22/2010 - 7:41pm

No, really then why this preseason weren't penalties called when Eli Manning had his head taken off or on the Ochocinco interception versus the Eagles? Those wer both plays where the defender was going for a killshot to "jack sombody up" rather than just wrapping up a player or playing the ball...

by tuluse :: Sun, 08/22/2010 - 8:39pm

It's preseason for the refs too.

However, I didn't see the those plays, so I can't comment.

by Brendan Scolari :: Mon, 08/23/2010 - 3:20am

"I have no interest in seeing folks get brutalized or injured. With boxing, someone getting knocked out is part of the interest and that's why I have no interest. Football would be just as compelling with the violence reduced - I'm not saying flag football, but if the big hit of helpless recievers and QB's getting clocked were reduced altogther, I would not mind one bit."

That's just your opinion though. I personally like seeing the big hits and the "Jacked Up! bullshit", and I know a lot of other people do as well. I think football would lose a lot of its entertainment value if some of the rule changes I've seen suggested here and elsewhere were actually put into effect. Why is your opinion any more valid than mine?

These guys aren't gladiators, no one is forcing them to play. If the health risks are too much for them they can walk away at any time. But if the incredible fame and fortune that comes with being an NFL player outweighs those risks, then I don't see the problem either.

by the cat in the box is dead (not verified) :: Tue, 08/24/2010 - 4:05am

I take your point, but I think the problem lies in the fact that for a LOT of players, they're not getting fame and fortune. They're getting a four-year career which they are likely to come out of with very little indeed, and a high chance of debilitating injury. They may be trying to get fame and fortune, yes, but for the average NFL player it's just not the case.

Sure, there are the stars, but for a large percentage of players they get the same exposure to head injuries and such, and are utterly forgotten about afterwards.

by socctty :: Mon, 08/23/2010 - 5:34am

I think players go for big hits for reasons other than just showing up on SportsCenter or pre-game shows.

The reason a safety hits a defenseless receiver over the middle is to intimidate that receiver, to make him "hear footsteps" the next time his number is called on a crossing pattern. They also make bigger hits to knock the football loose.

This defenseless receiver stuff isn't where a lot of the concussions are made, from my understanding. It's stuff like offensive linemen smacking their helmets against defensive linemen 60 times a game, the kind of thing that doesn't even show up on pre-game shows.

by ab (not verified) :: Mon, 08/23/2010 - 8:43am

A lot of the problem is that we don't really know.

by chemical burn :: Mon, 08/23/2010 - 9:54am

Listen, I'm not saying opinion is more valid, I'm just saying it makes me very sad when Andre Waters (one of my favorite players of all time) commits suicide due to concussion-realted depression. And it bums me out to see Curtis Martin walking everywhere with a cane. At a certain point, I feel like "gosh, if I like these guys, why am I ok with them suffering horrible lives because of the sport, especially when I don't think the sport would lose anything by toning down the violence."

I know a lot of people love the MMA mentality, these guys are gladiators, they get paid a lot of money, etc. But I don't. That's all. It's depressing if you think seeing guys you admire hobbled with injury, specifically with brain injury. I agree the problem is that we don't know, but the attitude (in my opinion) shouldn't be "whatever." I'm no moralist, but I wnat to be able to enjoy football and not feel guilty about the toll it takes on its athlete - there should be a way. (But the trenches is the complicated issue, as mentioned those 60 non-high-light reel blows a game seem to be the real problem)

by socctty :: Mon, 08/23/2010 - 1:18pm

Oh, I agree with your sentiment. I had to be dragged into playing fantasy football this year because I got burnt out on reading concussion-related articles and my knowledge of individual players has suffered as a result.