Concussion – Knee Injury Debate is a Big One for NFL & Sports Leagues Everywhere


lat-keller-wre0010927176-20130817Miami Dolphins TE Dustin Keller tore his ACL, PCL, and MCL in a game against the Chiefs Saturday, abruptly ending his 2013-14 NFL season and leaving his future in question. The deliverer of the hit that knocked Keller out of the game, D.J. Swearinger, offered some thought-provoking comments after the game.

“The rules say you can’t hit high so I went low and I’m sorry that happened,” Swearinger told The Palm Beach Post. “I would think you’d rather have more concussions than leg injuries. Leg injury, you can’t come back from that. A concussion, you be back in a couple in a couple of weeks.”

While most lay people would likely choose a knee injury before a concussion, it is in fact knee injuries that more frequently end football seasons, and often careers.  Placed within this context, and the fact that professional football careers are only 3.5 years on average anyway, you can see where Swearinger is coming from with his reaction.  The NFL is trying to improve safety by changing rules to prevent head injuries, but players are being forced to hit lower as a result, possibly leading to more potential knee injuries in the future.  The NFL also has non-guaranteed contracts, meaning a serious knee injury can (and often does) have career implications, while concussions are (seemingly) less problematic in the short run (meaning players regularly play through them, even if this is ill-advised), and oftentimes not even identifiable.

Unforeseen Safety Concerns

NFL rules are designed to provide the best on-field product while also providing players with the safest playing conditions possible.  What is interesting with the Keller injury is the conflict between protecting players better long-term (by doing everything possible to prevent head hits and injuries), versus making rule changes that increase the likelihood other equally, if not more dangerous injuries occur.

To the extent that head injuries are worse long-term when compared to knee injuries is also debatable.  Of course, when we witness former players experiencing terrible cognitive difficulties later in life, the sad and dramatic images prompt us to think that head injuries should be first and foremost when it comes to safety.  But not all former players who have experienced previous concussions have long-term difficulties, or any measurable problems at all.  Similarly, former players confined to wheelchairs because of previous football knee injuries would have a strong argument for better knee protection rules.  The point is both head injuries and knee injuries can have later life implications, and changing the game to protect one at the expense of the other is indeed worthy of debate.

Newton’s Law of Motion asserts that “with every action there is a reaction,” and in the case of the NFL adjusting rules to protect players from head injuries the “reaction” could be more future knee injuries.

Sport Psychology Implications

What are the psychological implications for this change in safety measures put in place by the NFL?  It is possible that more players will think of future knee injuries with the changes mandated in tackling zones, prompting some players to compete with less confidence and more anxiety — which, coincidentally, actually sets them up for a greater risk of a sports injury.  Mental toughness only goes so far when you think about more players hitting low, and the fact that serious knee injuries are often the types of injuries that end careers.