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NFL’s brain injury scandal and 3 changes needed now

Jets-Eagles, 2009. By Ed Yourdon. Flickr. Creative Commons with attribution.

Hey it’s Super Concussion Sunday so listen up couch potatoes!

The science says the NFL can probably solve much, maybe most of its massive and immoral brain injury problem, but for whatever reason — arrogance? — it is dragging its feet and mostly refusing to do so. The game will never be completely rid of concussions and sub-concussive injuries, of course, but there are good ideas that if implemented can make football far safer. It’s time, NFL owners (and college football factory presidents). You need to do your best, and do it now, to make the game as safe as it can be while keeping the look of the game roughly, but probably only roughly, the same.

1. Soften helmets and pads

We can start with the helmet. Why isn’t the NFL transforming the hard plastic shell model that is the core problem? Remarkably, “the noggin-protectors of yore do at least as good of a job as modern helmets at staving off concussions.” So the leather helmet of the 1940s protects players better than what almost all NFL players wear toda? What an indictment of the NFL and the helmet maker it has commercial ties to, Riddell. I’m not suggesting a return to the old-style helmets, but I definitely am saying — and so should queazy fans, the players and the government — that what was good about leather helmets, their ‘give’, should be incorporated into football helmets. And exactly that kind of innovation has already been worked on extensively, but unfortunately ignored by the NFL and Riddell.

In fact, we know specifically that the helmet innovation that did incorporate that ‘give’ or flexibility, the ProCap, was quashed by the NFL & Riddell. I have no idea why this story was largely ignored when it came out two years ago, but I think any reasonable person reading “Helmets Preventing Concussion Seen Quashed by NFL-Riddell” would conclude that the NFL and its partner Riddell ignored and ‘quashed’ not only the Pro Cap, which appeared to reduce concussions by about a third, but also a competing helmet design that was vastly superior on concussions to Riddell’s leading helmet. Regarding the ProCap, the inventor’s company paid Penn State’s Biomechanics Laboratory “to conduct studies on dummy heads with and without ProCaps. The conclusion: ProCap reduced impacts of collisions by as much as a third.” The lab’s founder, Richard Nelson, wrote in the report he sent to ProCap, “It is my opinion that the ProCap should be mandatory for all football players.” Nonetheless, the NFL began warning players in 1996 that using the ProCap risked “catastrophic neck injuries, including possible death.” The NFL’s 2013 player’s manual continued with the same warning, and Riddell salespeople were still warning people off of the ProCap in 2012.

Taking in and using innovations like ProCap won’t solve all or even most of the NFL’s brain injury problems, but they’re a big step in the right direction, as the lab data show. And the move away from hard plastic shells should be extended to shoulder and knee pads. We need to make padding that protects players but also does make their heads, shoulders, and knees into (intentional or unintentional) weapons.

2. Outlaw the three-point stance

New rules recently introduced — that, for instance, bar helmet-to-helmet contact — also help, and the NFL has reported that concussions are down 25% since last year. We need to understand, though, that concussions are only part of the bigger problem, which is the constant jarring of the brain that causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): “frank concussions [those transmitted by a single blow to the head] are only one piece of the larger CTE problem. The most recent science indicates that the accumulation of separate sub-concussive hits is as damaging as a single frank concussion.”

Jeff Nessbaum in Atlantic Magazine suggests an excellent idea related to the following quote, which continues directly from the one above: “And the vast majority of those hits take place in the trenches, between offensive and defensive linemen who start in a low stance and fire up and at each other when the ball is snapped. For most linemen, this fierce helmet-to-helmet collision takes place on nearly every play.” Nessbaum suggests the way to alleviate that constant jarring is to eliminate the three-point stance, where offensive and defensive linemen put one hand on the ground and, when the ball is snapped, typically fire out toward each other. In contrast, when players stand upright (in a ‘two-point’ stance) they typically rely on vision, speed, leverage and agility and tend not to make their bodies and heads into battering rams.

As Nussabum writes, this innovation will change the way offensive and defensive lines play the game, but in a positive way that enhances offenses and dynamism, which is what most fans want to see. Frankly, though, most fans wouldn’t care much about the change, since we tend to focus on what the skill players are doing rather than on the interior linemen.

3. Shrink the size of players

My own suggestion is to greatly cut back on the size of players. The NFL could set weight limits on players so average weights returned to what they were in the 1960s. Football was fine back then so I don’t see how this would affect ‘the essence of the game’ at all. Specifically, I think the maximum weight for ‘LARGE’ players (no more than five on the field at a time) should be set at 280 for players over 6’6”, and then should be ratcheted down to 270 for those 6’4” to 6’6”, 260 for those 6’2” to 6’4”, and 250 for players under 6’2”. For other players the weights should be ratcheted down another 15-20 percent from the preceding. I realize these restrictions seem severe on first look, but actually it’s the out-of-control enormity of present day players that’s way out of whack. ‘Forcing’ a young man to keep his weight no more than 25% above the norm for his height seems reasonable (and contributes to that player’s long-term health, by the way). And, of course, radically reducing average player weight meaningfully decreases the severity of the collisions that cause concussions and sub-concussive brain injury.

I’m happy to entertain any other ideas you have for making the game safer, or on the NFL or football in general. But, by the way, you probably should not attack the third idea with the notion that “you can’t do that, it discriminates against large people.” That’s just incorrect. Businesses can regulate such matters out of safety considerations. and that is the whole motivation of my proposal.

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