Changing the Game: Concussions in football

Since the issue of concussions in football began to capture headlines in the late ’90s, the NFL has implemented several measures to reduce head injuries in the sport. After moving kickoffs up five yards in 2010, the league reported a 43% reduction in concussions on kickoffs. Still, the risk of concussion remains high across all levels of the sport today, and ex-players are bringing more concussion-related lawsuits than ever against the league. Here are four ways we would change the game.

Lead with the shoulder

Injuries in sports are inevitable. In sports like football, in which two teams try to violently stop each other from moving, injuries are not just commonplace, but sometimes life-threatening. One way to reduce the amount of head-related injuries in football would be to alter the manner in which defensive players play.

Rugby, a similar sport with a violent nature but without the protection of helmets or shoulder pads, places a large emphasis on shoulder tackling. Pete Carroll, head coach of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, recently introduced an instructional video that advocated for shoulder tackling in place of tackling while leading with the helmet. The results can’t be denied–the Seahawks defence was one of the most dominant in league history last year.

The key, however, will be to introduce these tackling methods to children when they start learning the game. By emphasizing safer ways to wrap up ballcarriers earlier on, athletes can learn better habits at a young age and develop muscle memory that will dissuade them from endangering themselves. Additionally, any time that a player–offensive or defensive–leads with their head, they should receive an automatic penalty from the pee-wee level up to the NCAA and the NFL. Doing so will make sure that players can keep their heads in the game, and out of the hospital.

– Mayaz Alam

Don’t deny the science

A number of solutions to football’s concussion problem have been bandied around—mostly from baby boomers and their children, who refuse to let go of nostalgic and idyllic Sunday afternoons of beer and guacamole. Yet the issue with these desperate solutions is that they fail to recognize one key fact: The NFL is fundamentally incorrigible when it comes to concussions.

At such high speeds, waged by powerful and heavy athletes, the contact-driven game of football becomes a whirlwind of pending concussions and other injuries. It no longer becomes a matter of if an athlete is injured, but when. With increasing amounts of research being released about the deadly effects of concussions—spotlighted by the numerous concussed athletes that have committed suicide—football’s days are finite.

Professional leagues can only offer band-aid solutions to a deeper problem, be they empty boasts about more protective equipment or stricter sideline and return-to-play protocols. Any true solution lies outside of the hands of the professional leagues—as hard as that may be to swallow for those who ascribe to the handle-it-yourself, ‘macho’ American football culture.

Despite the recent light shone on the true depths of the effects of concussions, concussion research is still an extremely young and relatively unexplored field of study. As such, the ‘concussion-limit’ is still an exercise in subjective judgments made by the doctor, therapist, and athlete. If scientists are able to map out a greater understanding of the brain’s relationship to concussions—both in frequency and amplitude—real adjustments may be made to the game, based on the knowledge that emerges from this research.

Furthermore, the “man up, suck it-up, and stand up” culture in football locker rooms needs to undergo a root-level change. Concussed athletes are rushed back to the game due to pressure from coaches, fans, or themselves, exacerbating any issues and preventing recovery. This dismissive attitude toward concussions can only be changed on a superficial level in today’s professional leagues. The power to truly change this mindset lies in the huddles of youth football games and the coaches that teach young athletes the tenets of the game.

The flagging days of professional football are inevitable, and will arrive in the next few years. It’s time for athletes and businesspeople to sit down; if they truly want their game to be saved, they’ll have to let scientists and youth coaches into the locker room.

Remi Lu

Invest in technology

Concussions cannot be completely prevented in any full-contact sport, and are tricky to treat in the sense that they inflict most of their damage long after the hit or collision has occurred. The earlier a concussion can be diagnosed, the less damage a player stands to take in both the short and long term. Accepting that 100 per cent prevention is impossible without drastic rule changes to the game, the best possible scenario for harm reduction would be a wearable piece of technology that instantly alerts the player when he’s been hit with a force that surpasses the known thresholds common to traumatic head injuries.

A company called Battle Sports Science has developed a device they call the Impact Indicator 2.0, a micro-sensor that fits inside the chinstrap. After a hit, the device will light up green if the player is healthy, or red if the player may have sustained a concussion. While it’s a step in the right direction, there are several issues with this model. The Impact Indicator 2.0 is extremely accurate at measuring the G-force and duration of an impact, but is not able to account for rotational events—such as whiplash—that may lead to concussions but leave the light glowing green. Furthermore, according to Dave Halstead, technical adviser to the NFL Players’ Association, it is dangerous to advertise such devices to athletes as preventive rather than diagnostic, as they may feel empowered to play with less caution on the field.

As of now, only two active NFL players (Pierre Thomas and BenJarvus Green-Ellis) use the Impact Indicator 2.0 in real games. For this technology to make a significant impact, the NFL—not a private company—needs to invest heavily in perfecting a device of this type and making it mandatory for all of its players.

– Elie Waitzer

No helmets no problems

As a guest on the Dan Patrick Show in 2012, former Steelers’ wide receiver Hines Ward declared that removing players’ helmets would prevent concussions. Ward was one of the most physical receivers to ever play the game, delivering big blocks on a regular basis, but without a helmet he would likely be a markedly different player.

Modern football helmets are designed to protect players’ faces and skulls rather than their brains. They allow players to lead with their heads when delivering punishing hits, and ultimately may contribute to more reckless play. Instead, players should wear some form of padding on their heads that provides protection without allowing for heads to be used as a weapon on the field.

This change would have to be coupled with adjustments to both the rules of the game and other equipment worn by players. Shoulder pads would need to be shrunk and softened significantly, and certain types of hits would need to be deemed illegal. With these alterations, it seems likely that the nature of football as a sport would change as well. Games would no doubt feature more offence, but this shift may be one that many fans would welcome.

Changing the helmets in football, however, is not a solution to the concussion issue by itself. In rugby–a similar sport in which players do not wear helmets–concussions are currently a hot topic as well, but far less so than in football. Monitoring symptoms will still be crucial to players’ health, but with a change to the helmets, football would be made safer and perhaps–if it were a boon to offences–even more entertaining.

-Wyatt Fine-Gagne

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