NFL, Fans Take Players' Concussions Seriously

The NFL has put into place panels and rules to guard against players playing with concussions. Violent collisions are more prevalent in football as players are getting faster and stronger.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk more about this now with NPR's Mike Pesca, who's on the line from New York. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hi.

INSKEEP: What specifically is pro football doing about this problem?

PESCA: Well, the NFL, I think they are taking it seriously. They've put into place, panels, and they've put into place rules. And fans see the impact of the new rules playing out. Last week, when the Cowboys played the Bears, the tight end for the Cowboys was given concussion testing on the sidelines.

And this takes place in public and the TV cameras captured what was going on. And we saw Jason Witten, the tight end, arguing vehemently to get back in the game and he wasn't allowed back in the game because of the new rules. Now, this doesn't mean that things are perfect.

One example is that the program that Tom was just talking about at Virginia Tech, special helmets to monitor head impact, the NFL was going to institute that. For a variety of reasons, that program has been put off for now. But fans are seeing this and they're more and more concerned with it.

The NFL is entertainment, and no one wants to be horrifying your paid audience with a horrible head injury.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I mean, this has got to be an entirely different way to think about the violence in football. I mean, in the past, you would think if John Madden being so enthusiastic - pow, boom - and you'd think about people playing hurt and how heroic that was. This is a different concern, a different attitude here.

PESCA: Right. And some of the way you see that is the announcers will talk about a good clean hit, and that sometimes used to be ones where the player, the defensive player, led with a helmet. You hear that phrase, good clean hit, very infrequently now, about a head blow, though I don't know that game announcers articulate the concern with head trauma as much as reports outside the game.

And fans overall, they seem to be concerned. No one wants to see Hall of Fame players who are wobbling out on crutches or, in some cases, hear some stories about those who have died from head injuries. But TV ratings are through the roof with the NFL. So, overall, this issue is not having an impact on the ratings, which are growing and growing every year as the rest of broadcast TV is shrinking.

INSKEEP: Ratings are up by attendance at NFL games is down.

PESCA: And that could be related. I mean, there's one school of thought that you hear NFL officials say we've made the TV product so good, we've dis-incentivized people to go to the game. And I think that's true. I mean, it's never been more fun to watch an NFL game on TV.

But I think the big problem is cost. It now costs over $400 to take a family of four to an NFL game, and that's not counting these seat licenses.

INSKEEP: Seat licenses?

PESCA: Yeah. This is a way for, you pay 10,000 to 100,000 dollars and you get the permanent rights to your seat. It's sold as an investment, 'cause in the past, some seat licenses have appreciated. Who knows what's going to happen currently. The bad thing is it's soaking your fans so much to have to pay sometimes six figures to go to an NFL game.

INSKEEP: Paying that much to bring the family to the stadium to watch somebody get a concussion.

PESCA: Yeah. To buy hot dogs too, while you're there.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Pesca.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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