COLUMBUS, GA (WXTX) - On Sunday, Super Bowl 50 will likely become the most watched television program of all time, surpassing none other than Super Bowl XLIX.
However, the NFL's biggest fear is slowly being realized. In 2002, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster unexpectedly passed away.
Following an autopsy by Dr. Bennett Omalu, it was discovered something was severely wrong with Webster's brain.
Dr. Omalu diagnosed it as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. CTE is caused by sustaining multiple concussions.
“The chance of getting CTE are unknown at this time but we do know that it does increase with multiple concussions. So if you have one concussion you have about a four to six times increase in developing CTE. And if you have more than two concussions you have about eight times increase in developing it,” said Dr. Rick Horak of the East Alabama Medical Center.
Dr. Horak specializes in sports medicine and treats countless athletes that have sustained concussions. Each year in the United States, 3.8 million concussions occur.
However, according to Dr. Horak, approximately 50 percent of high school athletes do not report their concussions.
There are many symptoms of a concussions, passing out, blurred vision, dizziness and nausea to name a few. If a player is complaining of any of these symptoms they should not return to the game until they are cleared by a medical professional and are symptom free for 24 hours.
Following Webster's unexpected death in 2002, the NFL had a bit of a wake-up call and started to make changes to make the game safer.
Penalties never seen before like “hits to a defenseless receiver” and “illegal blow to the helmet” were now drawing 15 yard penalties. These were all in an attempt to help lower the amount of concussions.
Along with new penalties, the NFL also adopted a new concussion protocol. After sustaining a major hit to the head, a player must be cleared by an independent neurologist before they can return to play.
However, the NFL aren't the only ones implementing new precautions to limit concussions.
In the state of Alabama, all high school players must go through an education process explaining symptoms and risk factors of playing with concussions.
Along with the players, coaches must go through a course with the national federation high school to make sure they are trained in how to properly handle this matter.
“For us, any kid who is diagnosed with a concussion, we have a trainer on staff that is at every practice, every event, every game. Once a kid is diagnosed with concussion like symptoms, the trainers are in charge from that point forward, it takes it out of the coach’s hands,” said Opelika Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Brian Blackmon.
Dr. Horak says that Coach Blackmon's approach of taking it out of the coaches’ hands is the right one to take.
“Return to play is not a decision made by the coach, it’s not a decision made by the parent, it’s not a decision made by the athlete,” Dr. Horak said. “It’s made by the medical staff themselves. This is a very serious decision if we put an athlete out there that has a concussion and they go out there too soon and develop another concussion on top of that concussion, they will develop second impact syndrome and they can possibly die from that.”
Even with the rule changes in the NFL one thing remains the same – the helmet. But Robert Rumfelt from Opelika believes he has the solution to this problem.
Helmets have been designed the same way since the 1800’s, a shell on a shell. Your head is a shell with the brain inside of it; today’s helmet is simply another shell absorbing some of the energy from the impact.
“They have all been designed the same way until now. Mine doesn’t work like that it totally breaks with the paradigm, and the key thing that mine does it eliminates all direct impact to the head. And that is a game changer, no other helmet can claim that,” said Rumfelt.
Rumfelt has been working on this design for years, and has been in direct contact with the NFL about his product. He believes with the right investors he could have this product ready for the market in two years.
“It’s possible that all major concussions could be prevented by this. Will it eliminate 100 percent, we don’t know yet,” Rumfelt said.
Rumfelt thinks that he needs nearly $650,000 to be able to pay for the proper testing.
CTE has claimed the lives of at least 20 former NFL players, but the most difficult part about the disease is there is no way to diagnose it while a person is alive.
The only symptoms are depression, which was the case for a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman. Owen Thomas hanged himself in his dorm room in 2010. An autopsy revealed he had CTE, although he had never been diagnosed with a concussion.
Doctors now believe that you can develop CTE from repeated minor blows to the head.
Despite hundred million dollar lawsuits, former players committing suicide due to brain trauma and youth football number dipping for the first time in decades, the NFL is still a multibillion dollar industry.
But what does the future have in store?
“I think unless there are some changes made in the NFL with the rules and the way it is played you will probably have some more problems down the road and the NFL won’t exist as it does today because of the CTE and the known potential damage for a player’s health down the road,” says Dr. Horak.
Blackmon, however, believes the NFL and football are just fine.
“Football is a game that captivates the United States of America’s public,” Blackmon said. “And people will cancel everything they have on a Sunday afternoon to watch a Super Bowl.”
Rumfelt believes that the NFL does have a problem, but he has the answer.
“The NFL has got to do something soon, they know they do,” Rumfelt said. “They just don’t know the answer right now. And I have got the answer. Some guy here in a little town in Alabama has the answer and they just don’t know it yet.”
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