The topic of the health and safety of players competing within the NFL has been around for a while, but has risen in urgency in recent years. There is now greater awareness of the risks involved in the hard, physical sport of football.
Of course no one wants to strip the sport of those elements entirely. Physical contact is as essential to the drama that fans relish as the skills of the players.
They must be protected against injuries that can be catastrophic in the long term though. Fans love to compete in fantasy NFL leagues, watch the unfolding action and put parlay bets on the play from minute-to-minute, but none of them want the health of the players to suffer for their fun.
The NFL has realized that and is taking steps now to try to safeguard the stars of its league.
The Brain Game
Arguably the NFL failed to properly address the issue of the health of its players at all until around a decade ago. That was when the studies and available data revealing the extent of the issues started to pile up to a degree that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials could no longer ignore.
There is no question that the primary health concern for players competing in the NFL is to do with head and brain injuries. A number of former pro-footballers who died in their 50s donated their brains for research purposes and were found to have damage more consistent with the brains of 80-year-old dementia patients.
This was something that shocked both fans of the game and pundits and forced the NFL to start taking the safety of its players more seriously at last. In 2011, changes began to be seen during the games.
Health and Safety Measures
Early moves to make the game safer included stricter rules for when players suffer helmet to helmet clashes and shifting kickoffs to the pitch’s 30-yard line. Some sports writers urged more radical action though, including scrapping helmets.
It might sound a bit counter-intuitive to take away helmets from players in a sport where there is widespread concern about head and brain injuries. The thinking behind it was that it would make the players feel more vulnerable and thus reduce the over-physical aspects of the game.
That includes elements like high tackles and head-first charges by running backs. Ultimately this idea has not been adopted by the league, although some still argue for it.
We began to see real progress on player safety in 2016, with the launch of an initiative called ‘Play Smart. Play Safe.’ Between them, the owners of the 32 NFL clubs and the league itself stumped up $100 million towards engineering and medical research to reduce the risk of brain injuries.
The NFL also committed to another $100 million funding for research of its own into the issue. The ‘Play Smart. Play Safe’ project emphasized four key areas:
- Sharing Progress – sharing any useful data within the league and with wider society
- Protecting Players – changing the game as necessary to ensure player safety
- Advanced Technology – investing in technology to solve the problems
- Medical research – supporting research into them from outside sources
The subsequent studies led to key changes in the rules of the game. The NFL introduced a new rule called ‘Use of the Helmet’ that bars players from bringing their heads down to make contact with other players using their helmets.
That was in response to evidence that showed links between this and long-term head and neck injuries. A second change to improve safety saw the NFL kickoff rule altered to remove high-risk elements like the two-man wedge.
That change came after research into the games over two seasons found that 12% of all player concussions occurred during the kickoff. What this shows is the importance of investment in serious research, so that sensible and targeted action can be taken.
The NFL has also now put in place a process of five steps that any player who suffers a concussion has to complete successfully before they can play again. This process requires them to be passed fit by both the doctor for their club and an outside Neurological Specialist.
That latter aspect is particularly important, as doctors affiliated to clubs may be under pressure to declare star players fit. With everything from the helmets the players wear to the pitches – thanks to the BEAST biomechanical testing device – now optimized for safety, the league has come a long way.
We live in an era where technology is revolutionizing healthcare and the NFL is making full use of the insights it can provide to keep its players safe. This is a development that is long overdue.