If You Think Today’s Concussion Crisis Is Bad

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Take a trip to 1905:

Like the recent Time magazine cover featuring a 16-year-old who died playing the game, Americans are starting to ask, “Is football worth it?” Football has been here before, at a time when it was actually much more vicious. In 1905, 19 college football players died from injuries sustained while playing the sport; with five times as many college players participating today, the modern equivalent would be 95 on-field deaths. The San Francisco Call listed off the year’s fatalities: “Body blows, producing internal injuries, were responsible for four deaths, concussions of the brain claimed six victims, injuries to the spine resulted fatally in three cases, blood poisoning carried off two gridiron warriors, and other injuries caused four deaths.”

That year, amid calls for the abolition of football, Roosevelt hosted “an extraordinary private meeting” at the White House with the coaches of the three largest college teams:

Some say Roosevelt gave the coaches an ultimatum: Change the game or I’ll abolish it by executive order. But [historian John J.] Miller says that Roosevelt, characteristically, spoke softly, merely asking the leaders to save the sport by reducing the violence in whatever manner they could figure out among themselves. Given the fact that Roosevelt elevated the issue to the level of a presidential meeting, however, his implication was clear: It was time to fix football. “He didn’t have to say anything like a read-between-the-lines threat,” Miller says. “He wanted to nudge them in a direction.”

Miss Cellania notes, “Though he never played the game, partially due to his reliance on glasses, Roosevelt was a devoted fan.” She also provides context for the above image:

During the late 1870s, American “foot ball” resembled a combination of soccer and rugby with a riot mob mentality. Almost anything went: Players could carry the ball, kick it, or pass it backward. Starting in 1880, Walter Camp, a Yale player now known as the father of American football, introduced a series of changes to make the game more strategic. Unfortunately, some ended up making the game more dangerous. The most infamous example was Harvard’s “Flying Wedge,” inspired by Napoleonic war tactics: Offensive players assumed a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage, then converged en masse on a single defensive lineman. “Think of it—half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” wrote The New York Times in 1892.

For lots of Dish on today’s concussion crisis in football, go here. Update from a reader, who reiterates a key point about physics discussed throughout our coverage:

The issue with today’s concussion crisis – and why I personally think the NFL is in very, very bad shape long-term over it – is the intractable problem of F = dp/dt.  Simple physics, really.  Force is the first derivative of momentum with respect to time.  The intractability of the problem is that the object with the momentum in this equation is the player’s brain, and the thing which is rapidly inhibiting the brain’s momentum is the player’s skull.  The inside of their skull.

Football helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures and they do so quite well.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of an NFL player getting a skull fracture in my viewing life, from about 1980 to the present.  Maybe there’s been one I can’t remember, and perhaps there have been some in college football, which I have never followed very closely.  But they cannot lessen the kinetic impact of the brain, once it has been given a certain velocity, upon the inside of a rapidly decelerated skull.  Nor can they lessen it when a stationary brain is struck by a rapidly accelerating skull.  I don’t know if there’s any helmet or other device that we could design that ever could.

Lawsuits by former NFL players are such a threat to the league that it has changed its rules and settled for untold billions of dollars.  That an entity with as much power as the NFL flinches at the prospect of these lawsuits gives you an idea of how dangerous they are, but former high school and NCAA players have not sued their leagues and schools for the damage they likely suffered.  Not yet, at least.  I assume that some day they will, and I also assume that it will only take one or two judgments in their favor to create panic among university presidents and school board administrators – and the insurance companies that insure them.  These programs will either be unable to obtain insurance or it will become too expensive for only the richest programs to afford.

Not only that, but a large proportion of parents of high school-age boys will bar them from playing football, seeing the damage the plaintiffs in these cases have suffered.  Schools will no longer field teams and those that do will have a dearth of players to pick from.  The NFL’s talent pipeline will slow to a trickle, the product on the field will degrade, and sponsors and TV networks will balk at the prices the NFL and colleges demand for broadcast rights.

This may take the next 40 years to play out, but unless someone can come up with a solution to the problem of F = dp/dt, I don’t see how the league survives it.  They could of course keep changing the rules, making violent hits ever more rare, but diehard NFL fans are already distressed over the “wussification” of football already.  Much more and they’ll abandon it.  There might be an upstart league that gets started, promising all the hits from the good ol’ days of the NFL, and it will try to indemnify itself from the issue, but the problem is going to be with the high schools and the colleges, not the professional league.

Another physics nerd:

I love your work too much to let you get bamboozled by some bad physics logic. A reader wrote that helmets do not help to prevent concussions because of basic physics. He or she cites the right foundational formula, Newton’s 2nd Law in the calculus-snob form F = dp/dt, then fails to apply it properly.

First, let’s drop the calculus, because we don’t need it to understand this collision problem, and rearrange terms to get delta-p = F delta-t, or change in momentum during a collision equals force (the thing that cracks skulls and concusses) times the time elapsed during the collision. The change in momentum is roughly the same regardless of whether a helmet is worn: brain is moving before collision, brain stops moving after collision. So the left side of the equation is fixed which means the product on the right must also be fixed. The job of a helmet (or airbag, or baseball glove, or iPhone case) is to decrease the average force, F, by increasing the collision time. The right side of the equation must stay fixed, so by whatever factor we increase time we also decrease F.

That explains why a helmet prevents skull fractures: the cushion in the helmet provides a longer collision time which means less average force on the skull at any given instant, and therefore less risk of exceeding the minimum force required to cause a break. Now we just need one more important bit of logic to protect the brain: force transmission, which is really just a combination of Newton’s 2nd and 3rd Laws. The skull, being pretty solid, transmits the force from the helmet directly to the skull. So if the average force on the skull is decreased during the collision, then so is the average force on the brain. QED.

Drop me a line if you ever want some science fact checking. It’s what I do.