For nearly a decade, the media has effectively contributed to the heightened awareness of concussions in football. Many individuals, who either were or were not involved in the sport itself, became enlightened by the growing results of medical discoveries that connected mild traumatic brain injury to conditions such as post-concussion syndrome, depression, second impact syndrome, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The widely dispersed spectrum of opinion on this subject often provided vague interpretations of concussions in sports, so I engaged in something that would be a bit more effective in opening the public’s eyes, as well as my own, to the personal predicaments between concussions and professional athletes. To do so, I contacted Brad Scioli—former defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts.
Scioli played for the Colts from 1999 to 2004. He attended the same high school that I graduated from a year ago, and is forever enshrined in the athletic legacy of Upper Merion Area High School’s halls. He is known to be one of Upper Merion’s greatest, and most proud, athletes of success who took his talents to the professional level. Today, he is now a health and physical education teacher at Upper Merion, and is an assistant coach for the school’s football program. During my high school career, I had the pleasure of working with Scioli in a productive player-coach relationship, where I learned a tremendous amount of skills for the defensive end position through his expertise.
By speaking to Scioli, I wanted to learn about what the voice of a former NFL player had to say about the league’s most recent dealings with all aspects of mild traumatic brain injury. I wanted to see how we could further illustrate an issue that has been brought to the foreground of neuroscience and professional sports. After seeing my junior year mark the end of my high school football career, it was interesting to see what Scioli, a former defensive mentor who shares similar homegrown roots, had to say about the issue.
The cultural machismo of football has often provided for a delicate situation between the game and concussions. It is a troubling situation, but one that is not troubling enough to allow for an injury to get in the way of all that comes along with the game of football—pride, power, unity, life lessons, and feelings of complete, yet violent, harmony. To many, it is more than just a game.
“Football has meant everything to me in life,” Scioli said. “Enjoyment, friends, competition, memories, injuries, perseverance, opportunities—the list of descriptive words can go on and on. Football has had a major impact on the person I am today.”
Even knowing that, Scioli is aware that years of concussive and subconcussive traumas could potentially alter that “person” he is “today” to be one that leads down a path of uncertainty. It is the inherent risk of the game—something that the medical world has taken a particular interest in understanding.
“The fears I have are the fears of the unknown. Did anything happen to me while I was playing that will affect me neurologically at some point? I don’t know.”
Scioli is a member of years and generations of players who were not provided the necessary information on mild traumatic brain injury. Since the conception of the game, and up towards the mid-to-late 2000s, NFL players were rarely given a true, elaborate explanation of the risks of repetitive head injury. In addition to that, most of what we now know today wasn’t even considered, or thought of, in the game’s past.
“This is an honest answer—I don’t remember ever having a concussion in high school or college. It just wasn’t a word that was ever thrown around or heard. My first ever experience of hearing about a teammate with a concussion [was in] my second year in the NFL.”
I completely understand where Scioli is coming from. I, myself, was never introduced to the word concussion until my sophomore year in high school. It took me a trip to the hospital and several months of post-concussion symptoms to have the initiative to go and figure this out on my own, because no one around me was giving me any answers. It was almost as if there was something to be covered up. It was something that no one really thought twice about, because it was part of the game.
“I really had no true understanding as to what a concussion was till after I retired from the NFL, or at the very tail-end of my career,” Scioli mentioned. “I’ve had my ‘bell rung’ a few times, where I was a little wobbly and dazed, but I never thought of it as a concussion at the time. Maybe it was [a concussion] knowing what I know now, but back then I just thought it was, as I mentioned, just having my ‘bell rung.'”
Football developed quite naturally into a culture that disregarded the medical definitions of injuries and favored the decision-making of authoritative figures within the game’s programs. Players are raised a certain way within the structure of the teams they play for, where the difference between being hurt and injured is clearly established. In Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, Christopher Nowinski, the author, highlights a study that was conducted in several college football programs. It was found that 92% of athletes and coaches believed that a “bellringer” or “dinger” was different from a concussion.
Today, it’s a different case—those very descriptions of the physical effects of getting one’s ‘bell rung’ require the diagnosis of a concussion. There must be emphasis on the fact that such circumstances feel unnatural because they are unnatural. For an extensive period of time, no one seemed to think of it that way, though. No one thought much of it at the professional level because the players were hanging by the threads of financial leverage.
According to Scioli, “teams do not feel comfortable signing and keeping players [who have a history of concussions]. NFL teams want players on their rosters that can suit up and play—bottom line.”
I asked him about his own dealings with injuries, and how he reacted to adverse situations that threatened his playing time.
“Like many injuries I [sustained] during my career, if I could hide and not inform the team doctors, I would. With a sport like football, it was expected [to play through a concussion] because there was always pressure to play through pain and injuries. That’s the mentality that I’ve always had.”
The situations in which a professional football player may put his future on the line for the sake of the game is something that has received plenty of criticism from the general concern of the public, heavily complimented by medical professionals who have close ties to the NFL. Policies such as the efforts for concussion education, health care aid to those suffering from dementia, heavier fines and penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, and the funding of research studies to learn more of long-term neurodegenerative effects of multiple concussions are implementations that players of the past never saw coming. The goal has been to protect the players from making harmful decisions that may hurt their lives, with respect to their own personal dignity, as well as the relationships that they have with their families after the game.
“I think [these policies] are long overdue,” said Scioli. “It is totally different today than when I started my NFL career. This is true for all levels—high school, college, and professional.
[The NFL] has been much more proactive in diagnosing [concussions] and putting restrictions on players returning to games. If a player shows any signs of a concussion, they are not allowed back into a game—no matter what. Years ago, a player would get a concussion and be back in the game a few plays later. The rules of the game, in between the whistles, have been changed to limit head injuries. These rule changes are ultimately designed to improve safety, but it is a huge cultural change for many fans, players, and especially former players.”
The point that Scioli drew upon there was one that immediately grabbed my attention—the difficulty in adjusting to this cultural change. When doctors declared the end of my football career, I received an immense amount of harsh criticism from coaches, teammates, and classmates. People told me that I was faking it—as if weeks of mild to severe headaches, dizziness, confusion, difficulty reading, sensitivity to light, and bouts of depression were all made up.
What is promising to see is that some understand the injury more today. There are restrictions being placed upon both youth and professional athletes. The growing appearance of concussions in contact sports, specifically in football, is due to the rise in methods of awareness aimed towards taking on the sports’ concussion crisis.
“I think were are [seeing progress], but there will always be some gray areas because of the players’ desires to play,” Scioli said. “What sort of actions must be taken to address the issue in a most effective manner? Keep up with the awareness and encouragement of players to tell team doctors [if they have sustained a concussion]. That is the only way. As long as there is still the pressure for players to play through injuries and get back to the field [as soon as possible], nothing will change.”
And these pressures are most notably present in the volatile environment of the National Football League—the institution that sets the examples for all levels below it. Scioli believes that what the league is doing now, however, is the right thing to do.
“The NFL’s rules for reentering games should take the decision out of the players’ hands, which is the smart thing to do.”
To me, the uneducated fifteen-year-old varsity football player, a concussion was just a series of headaches that would eventually go away. The fact that no one taught us about the injury was what drove myself, and my teammates, to do whatever was possible to get back on to the playing field. Today, that is something that isn’t advised. The game of football needs to continue to acknowledge the severity of the injury from all aspects of its complexity, especially at the younger levels of play.
“[Kids need to know that] your life, your brain, is much more important than the game. They need to be educated [of the] symptoms, risks, and [all else] that goes along with concussions and playing football.”
Scioli, who has been coaching for several years now at the high school level, notices that concussions are becoming a more common injury. No matter how much information is provided, those who hold authority in sports programs will be the most resistant to change, regarding the new procedural guidelines placed upon the management of concussions.
“I have coached high school football for three years now,” Scioli said, “and have probably seen over fifteen players diagnosed with concussions. [I have seen] more self-diagnosed concussions. Because of the heightened awareness, there is much more precautions [taken] by the medical staff, which is a good thing, but many coaches who are former players are just starting to get adjusted to these precautions.”
The culture of the game is changing. For some it is moving at the right pace, and for many others, especially those who hold strong bonds to the game of football, it is still a work in progress. Not everyone will embrace the concussion management guidelines that have been implemented at all levels of play, but in time, we will hope to see a safer game. Through the eyes of Scioli, football is heading in the right direction, and is not losing its divine mystique that effectively captures the hearts of those who devote their lives towards playing and following the game. Progress, with regards to handling concussions, will only be seen when all characters of the game are willing to move forward with revisions that will protect the futures of our youth, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes.