by Chris Bodenner
A reader emphasizes a key distinction:
Leading with the helmet is a problem in football, but it is not the primary reason there has been a rise in a recognition of concussions and their long-term effects. Helmet manufacturers claim – and they are correct – that helmets are not designed to prevent concussions. Helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, and the advances in their design and manufacture has pretty much done that. Along with this added level of safety has come the increased use of the helmet as a "weapon" in tackling. That has produced some instances of spinal injury from compression of the vertebrae in the neck of the player who lead with his helmet. Concussions are the result of a brain injury that happens from "inside-out" – they are caused by the brain impacting against the inside of the skull as the player's head suddenly stops. No helmet technology will ever prevent that.
Your reader wrote, "In my opinion, it might not be a bad idea to get rid of helmets altogether, as that would probably discourage a defensive player from throwing his head full force into an offensive player’s left temple." That argument usually comes up in discussion and is summarily dismissed when the number of concussions in rugby is shown – and it's higher than in tackle football. See this article from TIME in 2010:
Back in January, in the course of reporting a TIME cover story on ways to make football safer, one idea I kept hearing, and that several readers subsequently championed, was to take a look at rugby. … Rugby, as it turns out, has plenty of problems with head injuries. According to one study, in South Africa about 14% of high school rugby players and 23% of professional and club players annually are diagnosed with concussions. Further, Michael Keating, the medical director for USA Rugby, says that a review of the scientific literature indicates that the number of incidences of concussions among rugby players and American-football players are similar. Some data suggest rugby incidence is 5% higher.
One other important factor I hadn't seen mentioned in the football/head injuries discussion is the factor of the field. The vast majority of pro football fields are now turf. This enables the players to run much faster and plant their feet more confidently and cleanly, all of which results in greater speed, acceleration and impact. The landing is also that much harder.
There's another factor here that is somewhat difficult to judge. For older players, especially before the introduction of free agency in the early '90s, except for superstars, their salaries weren't large enough to really provide compensation for the risks they were unknowingly taking. Players into the '80s often had to work multiple jobs in the offseason to stay afloat. Today the minimum NFL salary is approximately $375k, and an average around $800k. There's a feeling of unfairness, that today's players benefit on the backs of older players who are suffering the effects today.
I grew up in the South, mostly Texas. I played high school football. My brother played high school football. My father and uncle played and my grandfather played. My wife currently works in college football. Both of my grandmothers were serious football fans who could discuss x's and o's with any coach as are most of my aunts. Two of my cousins have coached state championship teams in Texas. To say the sport runs in my blood is to say it gets a little brisk in Montreal during January.
Despite all this, I refused my oldest son's requests to play football until he was in junior high. His first year of tackle football was this year and my wife and I made every game. Last week, he informed me he wasn't going to play next year. I should have been crushed (and there is a part of me that wants to require him to play some sport). But I was secretly thrilled. He's an exceptionally bright kid and as far as I can tell a brilliant musician (something I had to give up in junior high because of conflicts with sports).
The reader who submitted the above video notes:
Aikman has said he suffered as many as 10 concussions during his career. It's pretty telling for one of the game's biggest stars, and now it's lead on-air game analyst, to say he may not let his own sons play the game based on what we are learning about brain injuries.