It has been a particularly bad few weekends for the NFL as far as brain health goes. Violent tackles this weekend and last left multiple players with concussions, head injuries, and spinal cord injuries.
- The Falcons' cornerback Dunta Robinson collided so violently with the Eagles' wide receiver DeSean Jackson that both of them left the game with concussions. Reports say that Jackson is suffering from memory loss.
- The Patriots' safety Brandon Meriweather launched himself like a human missile and plastered the Ravens' tight end Todd Heap with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit.
- The Steelers' outside linebacker James Harrison sent the Browns' Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi to the sidelines with head injuries.
- Detroit linebacker Zac Follett was hauled off the field on a backboard with a spinal cord injury but has been pronounced OK.
The carnage didn't go unnoticed by the NFL. What I'm calling "Brain Injury Sunday" could prove to be a seminal moment in NFL history that permanently changes the way the game is played.
It's about time!
The NFL has announced that it will immediately begin suspending players for vicious hits, especially those involving helmets. Previously, players were either fined or ejected for illegal hits.
I hope the harsher punishments result in fewer brain injuries. But I understand how it can be confusing for NFL players to switch gears. They were taught to be aggressive and have been playing that way throughout their careers, and now all the rule changes are causing them to wonder how to play the game.
Changing lifelong habits isn't as easy as making a quick cut to change directions on the playing field. That's because the brain is hardwired to resist change.
The concept of long-term potentiation (LTP) is important here. This refers to the process of invigorating (or potentiating) neurons to do their job over a long period of time. It is accomplished, quite simply, through the repetition of an act, which causes actual physical changes in neurons and their synapses.
LTP causes the nerve endings to get bigger, which creates a significant advantage on three fronts:
- They are harder to damage.
- The larger surface area on the neurons allows for greater signals to pass between cells, enhancing efficient communication.
- In the process of potentiation, receiving neurons can generate their own signals with less input in the future; this means that once LTP has occurred it takes less energy to do something well.
For example, a linebacker who practices a "head-first" tackle mentality will eventually tackle this way without having to think about it. That's because he has been steadily stimulating the synapses in the neurons that control his movements so he can execute the tackle in that manner. He has "potentiated" his neurons in just the right way to accomplish that goal.
To rewire his brain, he will have to overwrite old neural pathways with new ones, and that takes time.
Even so, I'm confident that with practice and a commitment to change, NFL players can make the adjustment. The transition will take some work getting used to, but it is absolutely essential if the game will continue. And it is of the utmost importance to the brain health of NFL players. And in my opinion, that should be the NFL's #1 priority.
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