Concussions in football aren’t anything new, but a growing awareness of just how dangerous these seemingly innocuous head injuries can be may change the rules of the game on all levels. Yesterday the National Football League announced that it would immediately begin suspending players for “egregious and elevated hits” that violate games rules, especially those governing helmets.

Illegal hits have traditionally earned players fines and suspensions. But as the game of football becomes faster, more muscular, and more aggressive, the tackles and collisions – and resulting injuries – have grown in frequency and intensity. Compelled by the changing nature of the game and a better-than-ever knowledge of concussion and other forms of traumatic brain injury, NFL commissioners chose to ramp up the penalty first with fines and then with suspensions.

In recent years, medical experts have expressed a growing concern over sports-induced head injuries, warning that even mild concussions can have serious, cumulative effects when they occur repeatedly over a long period of time. These concerns already set the stage for stricter rules governing the plays that commonly lead to head injury.

On Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles battled the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson violently hit Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson head-on Jackson tried to make a catch. Both players fell to the ground, where they remained for several minutes, too stunned and hurt get up.

Robinson received a 15-yard penalty for hitting a defenseless receiver and returned to the game. Jackson, however, received a “severe concussion” with memory loss. He missed practice Wednesday and is not expected to play in next Sunday’s game against the Titans.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 for violent helmet-to-helmet hits he laid on Cleveland wide receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi last Sunday, causing both to suffer from concussions. Now Harrison is absent from practice and meetings and has been threatening retirement if the NFL doesn’t reverse its decision to toughen the penalties.

Overall, the new rules have been met with harsh criticism from players who say they won’t be able to play effectively if they have to worry about incurring fines and suspensions. But NFL vice president Ray Anderson isn’t wavering, even saying that all hits with helmets could be banned by next season.

“If we’ve got to face the backlash of those who say we’re making the game too soft, then so be it,” Anderson told the New York Times.

No changes have yet been made to college football rules, but the rate and severity of concussions in college games mirrors their occurrence in the NFL. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet received a concussion in the first half of Saturday’s game against Auburn and was sidelined for the rest of the game.

“I didn’t ever black out or not know where I was,” Mallett told the Arkansas News. “I was just feeling kind of woozy and talked to the coaches and trainers and we figured it out and they brought me out. I wanted to go back in. They wouldn’t let me.”

Dr. Sharon Chirban, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and specialist in sports-related head injuries at Children’s Hospital Boston, told that repeated head injuries to players can be detrimental to their quality of life.

“What we’ve learned through neuroanatomical research of the aging of athletes is that these head shots cause cognitive impairment, problems with memory, focus and concentration, premature death or early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Chirban told Fox News. “There are also emotional problems like depression.”

Ray Anderson also expressed concern over how the fundamentals of tackling were being coached in the NFL, and Dr. Chirban told Fox News that the way professional athletes play “has a ripple effect” throughout the sport – to the college level and further down.

“The way professional coaches teach their players shapes the way a high school coach confronts how children are involved in the sport. It is a big youth sports issue at the moment,” Chirban said. Children don’t rebound from head injuries as quickly as adults, and repeated concussions can lead to a spectrum of difficulties and disabilities.

Chirban also said that the NFL has done all it can do improving the game’s safety with equipment, so the new NFL rules are a good move.

“There is nothing to protect a human being from momentum. The brain doesn’t have to be hit to have a concussion, just impact that is hard enough can cause a brain injury,” she told Fox News. “Cleaning up hits will minimize the risk. You can never fully prevent the risk, because football is a game of contact.”

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