New England Patriots: Tom Brady and the curious case of concussions

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a score against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a score against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

There has been quite a bit of drama surrounding Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. What should we make of his possible concussions?

The Interview

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was back in the spotlight again recently for all the wrong reasons, when his wife Gisele claimed that he had suffered a concussion during last season. She also implied that he has had concussions multiple times throughout his career. The controversial part of this was that Brady hasn’t been listed on the official injury report with a head injury since 2003, per Jeff Howe:

The Furor

The internet went into overdrive stating that the Patriots had not been reporting Brady’s concussions to gain an advantage. A full explanation of the NFL injury report system and its designations can be read here.

The Statement

Tom Brady and the NFLPA released a joint statement denying any foul play by Brady or the Patriots.  Since then the media fire has died down. You can read this full statement tweeted out by Ian Rappoport (@RapSheet) below:

The Injury Stigmatism

From a young age in almost every sport, coaches (and parents too) try to ingrain a toughness in their players. Bumps and bruises should be played through, especially in contact sports as they are considered “part of the game”. Football is probably the epitome of the “play through the pain” mentality, two quick examples are the Atlanta Falcons’ Alex Mack playing the 2016 Super Bowl on a broken leg.  Logan Mankins playing in the 2011 playoffs with two torn ACL’s in his knees.

If players don’t play though injuries they can be perceived as “soft” both my their fellow teammates and their organisations.  Players are more likely to try and hide injuries from their respective teams as reporting a minor injury could affect their playing time and by extension their bank account. Concussions are difficult to clinically diagnose and they are also hard to identify by a coach or a physician. As a result they often go untreated or without medical supervision.

The Prevention

If players will continue to try to hide their concussions (not saying Brady is or isn’t) then changes in attitudes by the NFL and the NFLPA need to be made. While Brady cannot prevent concussions from occurring, it is possible to mitigate some of the risk involved. There are hundreds of articles available with their own theories, but we will focus on the helmet itself. What easy steps can the NFL and the NFLPA take right now to reduce the risk? While the following points are not new opinions, they are key to improving player safety and should be reiterated.

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The “Right Helmet”

There has been extensive research written on which helmet is the safest for a player to wear. To the uninitiated, American football helmets predominantly use one of the following materials to offer protection; foam, air pockets or gel. One of the most comprehensive studies on the levels of safety provided by each brand and model of helmet was written by Virginia Tech University. Speaking from personal experience, I used to wear an Adams A4.

This helmet is not actually shown on this list but is a lower quality helmet than the only helmet that received a “Not Recommended” rating – the Adams A2000. When I wore this helmet I used to suffer with frequent headaches, resulting from any helmet-to-helmet contact. After two years I switched to the 3-star ranked Schutt Air XP and the headaches disappeared. While this might be purely anecdotal on my part, the science behind the linings of the helmets and the difference in quality from one to another cannot be disputed.

The Brady Helmet

How is this relevant to Tom Brady? Well, he is known to wear a Riddell VSR4, which is widely used by players throughout the league.  According to the aforementioned rankings, the VSR4 is a 1-star helmet. This is hardly the best protection for a soon to be 18-year veteran. It is difficult to understand why the NFL and the NFLPA do not have rules around which helmets are acceptable to wear based on their safety ratings. Players can receive fines for trivial matters such as wearing their jerseys untucked during games. Surely, ensuring the head is well protected by wearing a good quality helmet should be rule number one of the Uniform Policy?

The Fit

Going back to the NFL uniform policy, something that also doesn’t get enough emphasis is helmet fit. American Football helmets can be wholly uncomfortable to wear, they are heavy (weighing up to 4lbs [source – my weighing scales]) and can be a tight fit – when worn correctly. As a result we often see players loosen the straps between plays or players on the sidelines remove them entirely. Something that seems to be endemic at the NFL and NCAA level is players having loose fitting helmets.

If a helmet doesn’t fit correctly, then it can in turn negate the safety features. We often see helmets falling off players after big hits or sometimes more comically the chin strap is so loose, the helmet falls off on its own accord due to incidental contact. A study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) stated that “Concussed athletes whose helmets did not fit properly had higher numbers of symptoms than did those whose helmets fit”.

This might not be too much of an issue for Brady as his helmet appears to fit better than most.  It would be an easy thing for the teams and the NFL to police going froward. At almost every level outside of the leagues listed above, players are taught to have the helmet fit more than snugly to the point of discomfort on their head. In order to remove the helmet the player should have to put their fingers in the ear holes and pull the helmet away from their head then upwards to remove correctly. The team I played with in Ireland wouldn’t allow a player to train if their helmet didn’t fit correctly.  Why cant the NFL follow suit?  Currently there are uniform inspectors that look at knee pads etc, why not have them look at helmets too and hit the offenders in the pocket through retrospective fines?

The Conclusion

In Brady’s case, I am not going to say that he has or hasn’t suffered a concussion during his career.  From the limited information we have, he has probably suffered concussion-like symptoms (at best) such as migraines or heat exhaustion. According to Dr. Harry Kerasidis there is a difference between a concussion and concussion-like symptoms. The Patriots medical staff advised that they haven’t any recent records of Tom Brady having suffered any head injuries.  It is quite likely that his wife Gisele mistook his symptoms for something else.

Next: 5 Players who might not return in 2018

The Next Move

The NFL has received criticism for its treatment of concussions over the last few decades. Mandating the helmets worn in the league are of a certain standard and their fit should be a starting point.  It would require relatively little outlay in terms of resources both monetary and personnel-wise. At the very worst, paying lip-service to their numerous critics on this subject by enforcing one or both of these suggestions would be a step forward from where the safety rules lie currently.