Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Football and Concussions

Recently the issue of concussions in football has received significant amounts of attention largely due to the release of new medical studies pertaining to the dangers of concussions for football players. These studies, as well as those from the past, have raised the question about player safety and whether or not football can remain the same game in the future. Unfortunately although outside commentators and officials will talk big about player safety very few of them will actually demand the changes that will be required to legitimately improve the level of safety in football at all levels.

For example a vast majority of the single event concussions that plague players occur when the defensive player’s helmet collides directly with the offensive player’s helmet during the process of making a tackle. Ten to fifteen years ago one of the cardinal rules of football, especially at the youth and high school level, was do not lower your head.

Unfortunately such a mindset seems lost now as instead of hearing commentators at the college and professional level say: ‘Whoa, he lowered his head there, he needs to be careful because that is not smart.’ they say ‘Whoa, he lowered his head there to get the those tough yards and the first down for his team.’ So instead of cautioning about the dangers of lowering the head, lowering the head is being exalted. For anyone that knows anything about football, the danger of lowering the head is that it significantly increases the probability of helmet-to-helmet contact between two players, be it opposing players or players on the same team.

If the NCAA/NFL really wanted to protect players then they would work to eliminate any perceived net benefit to lowering the head. One easy way to accomplish this goal is to establish a rule that allowed the NCAA Football Rules Committee/Commissioner’s office the ability to suspend players without pay (when applicable) for multiple games when leading with a lowered head when engaging against another player. For example, any head-down/lowered helmet-to-helmet hit would be an instant 2-game suspension without pay, regardless of whether or not a personal foul penalty was called against that particular action during the actual game. Note that this rule explicitly states and would be enforced if the helmet-to-helmet contact were the result of the head being lowered when contact is made because helmet-to-helmet contact can be made even when the head is not lowered. There should be little problem enforcing this portion of the rule because it is rather obvious when the head is lowered vs. when the head is not lowered.

Early on it is reasonable to presume that if such a rule was accurately enforced it would be received with a level of scorn and controversy because a number of players at all levels would receive suspensions due to leading with the helmet due to their acquired play style. However, lowering the head does not increase the probability of making or evading a tackle (one could probably successfully argue that lowering the head actually decreases the probability of making or evading a tackle). Therefore, there is no legitimate reason to oppose the application of such a rule because it does not negatively influence the play of the game itself.

Another potential safety measure that has been proposed is that some commentators believe a rule should be instituted where a player that suffers a concussion must sit out the next game. Unfortunately for these commentators such a rule could be viewed as a legitimate violation of the player’s personal freedom. If a player wants to play with a concussion he should have the opportunity to do so as long as he is properly informed of the consequences, for it is his life. A better suggestion would be a rule where if a player that has been diagnosed with a concussion after a game, that player has the option of sitting out the next game with no financial or career repercussions. There is evidence that demonstrates seven days should be an average minimum time to recover from a concussion and that the probability for repeat concussions increases significantly before this recovery window passes.

One of the concerns with the above suggestion of allowing the player with a valid concussion to sit out the next game may be the stigma of masculinity in that a player does not want to be viewed as weak by teammates so he will play instead of sit out to improve recovery. The other suggestion of forcing him to sit out a game removes this stigma because the player can blame the league rules for him not playing, not any supposed wussiness. However, it is difficult to understand the logic of such a stigma as it relates to a concussion when players routinely run out of bounds or fall down to the ground to avoid any form of contact during the actual game. Such actions are commonly viewed by commentators as smart because the player is avoiding unnecessary punishment and is thus increasing the probability for a longer career. How is it that skipping the next game after suffering a concussion is not viewed in the same light of career extension?

To institute the above policy the NFL should acquire the serves of at least 3 neurosurgeons that can be placed on retainer to handle all concussion related inquiries by players. For the purpose of objectivity these surgeons would remain as anonymous as possible. These surgeons would operate independently of any of the teams and would answer directly to the NFL Commissioner’s office. Petitioning players would have the option of being examined by each of the retained surgeons on an individual level or foregoing the examination in favor of preventing any type of imaging information to validate a concussion.

However, it is important to note that football is a violent game, albeit a lot less than it use to be, on some level and potential future health risks are one of the trade-offs for an individual’s involvement and the excessive salary that is awarded for that participation; if occupational safety is really such a hot-button issue why is so little attention paid to the dangers of mining both domestic and abroad? Overall if the game of football is to continue to be played as it is in this time period, individuals will have to acknowledge that there are certain risks that must be weighted by those that choose to participate. Of course such a declaration does not mean that new helmet technologies should not be continually developed, but football as is will never be perfectly safe.

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