Donald Parham Jr. Injury a Stark Reminder That NFL Still Has a Player Safety Issue

The box score will tell you that the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Los Angeles Chargers in a thrilling overtime game, 34-28. What it won’t point out was the terrifying non-contact head injury Chargers tight end Donald Parham Jr. suffered in the first quarter while the score was still 0-0.

Though it does sound like Parham will ultimately be OK, the scene that took place on the field, with the 24-year old being wheeled away while strapped to a headboard as his arms shook uncontrollably, is a stark reminder that football is undeniably a dangerous sport. It also sheds light on the fact that even though the NFL has come a long way in the player safety department, there is still work left to do.

Donald Parham Jr. being carted off the field reminds us that NFL football is dangerous

There’s no way to deny that football is a dangerous game, and that’s most true at the NFL level, where everything is amped up to 100%.

Players are getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Even though the league has cracked down on targeting hits and helmet-to-helmet contact, every NFL game basically features what equates to hundreds of miniature car crashes over the course of 60 minutes. Linemen, linebackers, and running backs get the brunt of the physicality, but Parham’s injury on Thursday Night Football highlighted the inescapable reality of the game at any level. 

The ground can’t cause a fumble, but it can cause a concussion. It’s everywhere.

Players are at risk of serious injury every time they see the field. The easy rebuttal is to say they know the risks and get paid handsomely to take them. Still, the long-term effects of football, especially as they relate to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), are morbidly serious. CTE is directly tied to receiving repeated blows to the head, and it can be the end result of too many concussions.

Concussions impact the game at every level, not just the NFL. That’s why someone as notable as legendary quarterback Brett Favre has campaigned against parents letting their children play tackle football before age 14.

“Having kids play before high school is just not worth the risk,” Favre said in a statement released by the Concussion Legacy Foundation. ​​​​​”CTE is a terrible disease, and we need to do everything we can to prevent it for the next generation of football players.”

An encouraging update on Parham

Find the video of his injury at your own risk. But if you do, you’ll see that Parham was trying to make a routine play, laying out in the back of the end zone for the football. That’s a play that happens 10 to 20 times across the league every weekend, and that’s the scary part.

Non-contact injuries are always jarring, but it was perhaps the routineness of the play that made it so shocking.

He clearly hit the back of his head on the ground. For some reason, the camera zoomed in on him, and while that was probably a bad idea by the broadcast team, it did put the stark reality of the game on full display for viewers. The 24-year-old was clearly knocked out cold, and it looked as if he was still trying to catch the football. In reality, that was a classic example of the “fencing response,” which features the arms positioned unnaturally as a direct result of a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion.

As previously mentioned, he was carted off the field strapped to a board while his arms shook uncontrollably. Initially, it seemed like that moment could only end in terrible news for the second-year tight end, but the Chargers have released an encouraging update.

Parham stayed the night at UCLA Harbor Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. And as the Chargers relayed Friday, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “He is comfortable and alert, likely to be discharged later today.”

It does say something about the sport that we’re “encouraged” by the fact he just suffered a concussion. It could have been so much worse, but what long-term impact will he experience because of the concussion?

How the NFL can continue to improve player safety

No fan likes ticky-tack targeting calls, like when a ref throws a flag at a defender for accidentally touching a quarterback’s helmet. They are an essential part of player safety in the NFL, though. The idea is to discourage any contact with the head area, and if that means taking it to an extreme, then so be it. It’s just the way it has to be.

Parham’s injury had nothing to do with a defender targeting his head, though. The NFL can’t regulate that type of injury without dramatically altering the game itself. We’re probably never going to get to a place where diving for a football is a penalty, but the NFL has done and can continue to do a few things in order to improve player safety.

The league has poured a ton of money into researching helmets, and it’s not just trial and error but rather a highly scientific process of determining which helmets are best at protecting players in contact situations. With the help of the private industry, that’s an initiative that could change the game for the better. The perfect helmet will probably never be found, but technology has evolved to a point at which the right amount of money could produce a product that ends up making a significant dent in the concussion issue.

The NFL needs to keep shelling out that money. That’s step one, and it’s probably the most important of them all.

Another exciting initiative to help “take the head out” of football is something known as Hawk Tackling, which Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has championed, hence the name. Seattle has been known to produce elite defenses at the NFL level, and much of that has to do with the sound tackling technique taught by Carroll and his staff.

Hawk Tackling takes its inspiration from rugby, where physicality and contact are arguably at an even higher level than in the NFL, though the competitors don’t wear helmets. How do they get away with it?

Watch any rugby match, and you’ll see that the focus of the tackle is on the shoulder. The head is meant to stay on the outside of the tackle. From there, leverage can be applied to either lift your opponent off the ground or into it. A roll technique can be used with a high level of effectiveness as well.

Hawk Tackling is not just a technique for the Seahawks. Carroll and his staff put out multiple instructional videos, hoping youth and high school coaches would adopt the technique and teach it to their players. The goal is to teach football players to keep their heads clear of the tackle at an early age so that it becomes a habit. It’s also just a more fundamental way to tackle. The Seahawks have been great defensively in the Carroll era for a reason.

Though the NFL is already taking steps to improve player safety, Thursday night highlighted the fact that there’s still much work left to be done in order to make a game loved by millions safer for those going out there and taking the risk.

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference. Contract information via Spotrac.

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