Head Game: The future of NFL football and player safety

There are few topics - even with the legal brawl that the NFL has descended into - that have been getting as much interest, concern and press as the problems of concussions and long-term health issues in the modern game. A sham committee, bought and controlled by the league, has been replaced by real research and painfully difficult conclusions - there is no longer any doubt that multiple concussive issues are very real and extraordinarily difficult to deal with. That being said, I’m feeling increasing positive about the effect that this debate is having on youth and college football, and on the general population, who never really give a thought to how many concussions an average person might experience over time.

That being the case, I had occasion to respond to a recent email comment by a reader who had experienced three concussions of his own. I told him: 

I'm so pleased to hear that you're getting checked on the concussion issue. Getting a baseline at the very least, especially after three, is just so important. Over our lives, a few falls and a careless driver or two happen later on to a lot of people - probably most of them. Knowing that there's a potential problem and then applying whatever solutions are currently available (and that aspect of the field is growing rapidly) really makes sense:  the future holds a lot of promise with techniques of dealing with that area of healthcare.

I was fortunate enough to be involved with the brain injury community for a while back in the 90s, so I've been following the developments carefully. The field is well beyond what I had learned by now, but I maintain an interest in developments in that area. 

You know what has interested me the most, of late? What's been remarkable for me as a former practitioner and a fan of the game has been to listen to the voices of the people who are starting to look seriously at the part of themselves that has loved watching the vicious, head-pounding football hits that all of us have loved at some point. Uncomfortable as we often are in looking at that side of ourselves, it's part of the allure of football - or, perhaps more precisely, was, of the kind of football that was played at the point in time when each of us started watching the game.

You look in amazement at the power of it, the sheer athleticism and the incredible conditioning that goes into it:  the sacrifice that the vast majority of NFL players put in, every week, all year long. What started becoming a broadcasting ritual on Sunday afternoons in the autumn, with that time slot chosen in great part because no one was doing anything then and the networks needed something in sports to fill the airtime, has grown into a year-round spectacle. We read about it, we learn about it, and we enjoy watching the contest: unarmed territorial warfare, played in pads and helmets but still bearing its primal roots. Something about that resonates within us.

There's been an emphasis in the past decade or two in which the players themselves focus on making SportsCenter's nightly highlight reels. And there's little question in my mind - I've watched and enjoyed the game for about five decades, and over that time, ESPN has greatly changed the culture of the sport. It's all about the big hit in football and hockey, the ‘facial’ dunk in the NBA. Players kid each other and brag on how they’re going to make the top ten highlights, and they’re willing to give up their own bodies (and those of their opponents) in hopes of getting that kind of personal satisfaction. There’s also a backlash to it that’s becoming clear.

The pro football game is now a year-round phenomena. When the pros are resting, the spring college football season carries us ever closer to the draft, and then it's the NFL’s offseason training activities (OTAs). We cry out and bemoan the summer weeks when those end and training camp doesn't yet start - it seems unfair, a baiting of the hook, which we will then fervently set ourselves as soon as the training camp info fodder starts flowing, makes its way to us and saving us from our spells of alternating irritation, hyperactivity and grumpy lassitude. And when the players hang out in the offseason, just as they do during the season, one of the topics of discussion is making ESPN. It's the sign that you've arrived, a Holy Grail comprised of those who make it to the top.

We look back and are amazed by the black and white footage of those beasts of men, taken mostly from the factories, mines and mills within the stretch of the country from Chicago to New York:  the Iron Belt, the Coal Belt, the sons of immigrants who were looking for a way out of the mines and the sons of aristocrats, players out of Harvard, Yale and Princeton who were feted around by their college alumna;  those men of breeding and finance who controlled the money, and hence the sport. The game was the great leveler, played by men who didn't speak much English and played alongside of them by the highbrow scions of industry, men for whom it was a chance to vent the tensions of the vast intensity of living the controlled life of an elite, with all the expectations that would go with that station. For them it was an accepted, even quietly encouraged way to prove themselves while in college, to establish national contacts, and then to go back into that very private world, better for the experience. And for both groups, and all the people in between it was the joy of competition, the inherent and instinctive urge in men to prove themselves, to test themselves and to learn who they really were.

We didn't know about the suffering back then. It was all figures on a field which became pixels on a screen, black and white film that grew into instant analogue or digital replays, with zoom features to pick out the exact spot that an infraction did or didn't take place. But there is a confidence, even a cockiness, that inevitably goes with being very, very good at something, and those young men would huddle in dorm rooms and locker rooms and laugh, talk and screw around in the way of men ever since the first arena was a circle scratched out in the dirt. It was about teammates, friends, comrades, and certain sense of honor with most of them. It was a rare place in life where a man could relax and just be whatever he is. Many of us came from or through some form of that environment. Others just were taken by the incredible athletic feats that are a part of every college or NFL game. And the players, when they got together, would talk about making the highlight reel.

But finding out what price the piper will extract for what we love to watch and, sometimes, how many coins will be needed for the boatman, it sobers us. We realize that others have entered into a life that will usually be shorter than others, that often comes with a level of pain that would have most of us rolling, fetal and shaking, on our floors. This is really the first time that we as the public have found out what the kind of violent, aggressive sports really do to the human body over the players’ remaining lifespan. Watching how much worse it is for some of the older players and reading about the suicides and early deaths of these men tears at us. It challenges us to look inside, and it asks questions that can be difficult to confront.

For myself, I believe that football can be made substantially safer without taking away the immense, powerful beauty of it. I believe that we can change it in terms of far better (both lighter and stronger) padding, in terms of establishing legal techniques that are taught consistently from Pop Warner to NFL training camps. People will probably look back at film of the last few decades much as we look back on the grainy black and white film of those leather-helmeted brutes and the remarkable players who rose to the top back in those nascent days. It was a more brutal time, they'll be likely say. And they'll be right.

I'm not big on changing everything in the game, and I don't think that you have to. You can take it a step at a time, recognizing the dangers and making sure that what treatments are available are being used. Players are learning about the responsibilities on their own side of the equation: learning about real nutrition, about regular massage, physical therapy, offseason training, caring for their bodies and learning new forms of training that strengthen the core of the body and help it to absorb impacts with less harm. There are ways to strengthen the neck that help protect the brain - I expect to see an increasing emphasis on them in football as well. Boxing - a sport that I don't follow - has used them for generations.

By the way, it was when ABC, back then the third-place ‘Almost BroadCasting’ network, landed the Gillette sports advertising account because Friday Night at the Fights, a staple of early television was cancelled, that the AFL solidified a contract between that network and as a result, that nascent league that found it the revenue to survive and to thrive in the national marketplace. We’ve gone from the beginnings of the modern NFL at about that time to an understanding of what the costs are to the men who take part in it, and it’s increasingly a topic that my friends who love football and the people who write me about their own experiences with it are starting to give a long and sobering look. it’s a rare week that goes by without more information being disseminated about the problems of multiple head injuries, and an equally rare week that I don’t hear from someone who is starting to see the game in a new way, and struggling to reconcile their love of the game with the effects of its violence on the men who play it.

We need to begin the process - because a process is the only way we'll get this one done - of teaching and requiring proper technique in tackling. The flying leaps that make for incredible collisions are often just a player playing out of control;  putting himself and the other players in danger. When you think of it that way, it's just common sense to go back to teaching the tackler to wrap up, and for coaches to require it on all levels. It won't happen overnight, but I can see it happening. I believe that it has to.

Equipment will get stronger, lighter and more effective. New research is finding that helmets don’t protect the brain in quite the ways that we’ve thought, and new ones are on the way. Even so, good friend Troy Hufford (who writes for MHR) and I were exchanging some thoughts on that; With a degree in biomedical engineering, Troy knows his stuff. Both of us see changes in technique and rules as equally (or more) essential to find a better balance in this area. Troy pointed out,

The issue of player safety is a very complicated issue. Even taking just one element into consideration (the helmet), you run into a large number of engineering and biological issues. From a biological standpoint, you’re trying to eliminate the sloshing effect caused by a sudden impact that forces the brain to impact the inside of the skull. That is a very rough estimation of what a concussion entails. To reduce that effect, there are a number of variables that helmet manufacturers can tinker with, none of which can completely eliminate the risk of a concussion.

A lot of times, a concussed brain is compared to the yolk of an egg. If you throw an egg at the ground, it’s going to break. If you wrap that egg in a bunch of bubble wrap and put it in a shipping box filled with packing peanuts and then throw it at the ground, the egg will stay intact, but you can’t ensure that the yolk stays stationary. Helmets were made to prevent skull fractures, bleeding, bruising and sudden on-field deaths. They work great in preventing those issues. They were not originally designed to prevent concussions and, at this point, it remains to be seen whether they can be redesigned to do so.”

Look a bit further down the road and you'll see that the exoskeletal technology that now can help a man run 25 miles an hour and lift immense weights without strain that is currently mostly a military application. It’s cumbersome and heavy in its early incarnations (although it's available to anyone with the money), but that will change. That technology will do what all of them do - it will get smaller, lighter and stronger, and someday I'd bet that some of it will be built into football equipment. I won't be here to see it, and perhaps you won't either, but I believe that it's coming. Much sooner, the changes in carbon nanotube technology alone could change a lot of the 'armor' that players will wear, and nanoparticle materials can be designed to exacting specifications of flexibility, weight and crystalline structures, among other variables. Troy also noted that new synthetic polymers are constantly in development that could improve such equipment - but the nature of the game will always be violent, and the players will usually object to changes in their gear.

It really wasn't that long ago that HOFer Jacques Plante became the first goalie in the NHL to wear a mask, and despite a lot of ribbing from teammates, fans and opponents, each time it would take a hit from a puck, he'd use a magic marker to draw the estimated gash and stitches on the mask. Soon, all of the goalies were wearing them, then it was helmets (which were also decried as ‘ruining’ that game) for both goalies and other players.  No one would recognize a modern goalie helmet from the flimsy early models, and the regular player models have also improved greatly. Football is also changing its armor, with thigh pads being required as a small step. How players gird themselves will change because at our hearts, almost none of us wants to see anyone get hurt, and no one wants to see another person live with disability and pain.

And in the meantime? There's going to be some discomfort for many of the fans who think about this conflict between entertainment and harm to the players. It's sometimes tough to rectify our enjoyment of the spectacle, in many ways the modern equivalent of the gladiatorial clash, with our increasing recognition that these are real people, and what they are choosing to do is having serious repercussions for far too many of them. I love the sport, love its human chess match, its athleticism, its courage, even its valor. Those are also part of it, and that keeps me coming back. But I see the other side, too, and it isn’t pretty.

Testosterone is a beautiful and dangerous thing, but it's a part of each of us. Within each person, within their cranium also lies a reptilian brain, the one that tells to rise to the top, to fight off all challenges. Let it run too wild, and it's a ticket to crime. But sports take that youthful testosterone and that part of the brain and give them a safer outlet. They channel it into something less crude, perhaps even more noble. I think that over time, we'll see it as simply more humane to improve the way that the game is played, so that these young men can have more full, healthy post-sport lives. As always, there is a middle road. Truth is often what the opposites have in common. Our trick is going to be finding it

Of course, right now, the players and the owners have taken the fight from the gridiron to the conference room and now to the courts, rather than the gridiron. It isn't for the first time, and it's highly unlikely to be the last. It delays our need to ponder these questions of right, wrong, morality and ethics within sports, but also gives us time to do so. I also love to watch NBA basketball, and we all know that games have been and probably still are being fixed. Yet I find my enjoyment of a well-run pick and roll just as fulfilling, regardless. And, I don’t love football any less for the problems that we face, but it does bring the complexities of the issue front and center.

Life isn't always fair. On the one hand? It's just football. It's the nature of a tough, tough game. And on the other? We'll hopefully make the changes as we know which ones to make, and still respect the competitive nature of the sport. It will change and it will evolve, as it has, as everything does.

In the meantime, we watch the changes that are coming to the sport, and we wonder where the lines are drawn, and where they should be. We examine our selves, and our own feelings and reactions to what we are finding out about the lives of the players, and we think about whether this is the best that we can do. And we should think about these things, too.

The nature of the sport is evolving, and that's a good thing.  

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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