Concussions Should be a Game Changer

Both acute and chronic injuries to football players have been in the news all too frequently during the last couple of years. Players, fans, coaches, and even those not closely tied to the game understand that a violent sport such as football carries with it the risk of injury to those who play. That will not change without some fundamental reworking of training, equipment, and rules. To the NFL and the NFLPA’s credit, they have made a very public and serious commitment to take more precautions for players when it comes to concussions. Unfortunately, just banning helmet-to-helmet hits and minor equipment changes will not remove the possibility of players suffering severe orthopedic and/or head injuries while playing the game.

So should we just give up and say that “it’s just part of the game” and we really can’t do anything about it without turning the NFL into the “Non-contact Football League”?

The short answer is “No!”

NFLPA has renewed its request to have  “concussion specialists” with no team affiliation who would man the sidelines to oversee concussion protocols and treat players and help eliminate what it perceives to be an inconsistency among teams to adhere to concussion guidelines. The recent concussions suffered by quarterbacks Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, Alex Smith and running back Fred Jackson drew particular attention from all parties including fans.

The players association and the league are pouring money, time, and effort into better understanding the causes, treatments, and outcomes of physical injuries that may be sustained by players. Previous articles found on have addressed the seriousness of concussions and steps being taken to reduce the prevalence and long-term effects of this form of head injury.

Having said that, are we seeing a reduction of concussions or serious injuries to NFL players? It sure doesn’t appear to be the case. In the past, if you were to look at any team’s list of player injuries it would be dominated by orthopedic injuries such as damaged knees, ankles, etc. which are significant and painful injuries. Now, more and more players are held out of practice and competition because of minor traumatic brain injuries, or concussions. Certainly, some increase in concussions can be attributed to better reporting and awareness of the significance of such injuries, but to the casual observer, the number of players suffering concussions or assorted other injuries seems to be going up not down.

So what if we looked at another “industry” that historically has had high injury rates but through the application of science and technology has been able to significantly improve its safety record? The auto industry understood that people where often injured or killed during vehicular accidents as they flew forward and impacted the steering wheel and dashboard during a crash. By introducing 3 point seat belts and airbags they made cars safer by increasing the surface area of contact and the time it took for the impact to affect the person. They spread out the force of the impact by having a larger part of the torso restrained by the belt system and allowing the person to sink into an inflatable pillow to reduce injuries.

How does that relate to football? Well, if two players collide, the smaller the contact area—say helmet to helmet—the higher the resulting pressure at the point of contact and the greater the likelihood of injury to one or both players. I’m going to take you back to high school physics class to help make my point, please bear with me (or skip to the next paragraph, your choice). Worst case scenario: two players each weighing 220 pounds collide helmet to helmet, each player is running at about 18mph when they impact. If the collision takes 0.02 seconds— about the time a punter’s foot is in contact with the ball during a kick—and the contact area is 1 square inch, the pressure each player experiences is about 9000psi.

If the contact area is larger, everything else being the same, you end up with a much lower pressure and a significant decreased chance anyone gets hurt. By increasing the area of contact by tackling with the shoulder and upper arms, maybe 15% of an average person’s total surface area, the resulting pressure would be reduced to about 21.5psi! Now I’ve made a lot of assumptions with my simple calculations but numbers and physics underlying the example are correct. Increase the area of contact, decrease the pressure, and the associated likelihood of injury.

So my simple proposal to decrease injury is to change current rules to require that any tackle that is made beyond two yards from the line of scrimmage be done using as much of the defensive player’s body as possible. A big “bear hug” type tackle would be ideal for reducing the chance of injury for both players. I know that’s not possible very often, however, proper tackling technique, which is taught beginning in Pop Warner leagues, dictates that players lead with their shoulder and wrap up the opposing player with their arms. Such technique increases the surface area of contact, which decreases pressure, resulting in a likely decrease in injury for both the offensive and defensive player. All I’m asking for is enforcement of good tackling mechanics by penalizing players for tackling without wrapping an arm or arms around their opponents.

Officials already make holding calls.  This would be a reverse holding call. The player and his team is penalized if he does not use his arms to make a tackle “in space” when proper tackling can and should be done.

Sounds too simple, sounds too radical? Think about it. Good tackling helps protect both players from injury. It requires better technique and while it might take a few of the “big hits” away from the game, the players, fans, and game would adapt, and be better for the change.


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