Within the past few years there has been a lot of news about the repercussions of injuries to NFL players during their careers. The main issue being discussed has been specifically concussions and the fact that they seem to cause brain damage later on in life. To the NFL’s credit, they have taken some steps to heighten safety within the sport. For example, earlier this year they outlined new rules for reporting which players listed on an injury report may or may not be playing in any certain game. Padding and helmets have also gotten better to help protect players as time has gone on. But are these helmets really helping prevent injuries to players heads?
According to the Associated Press, helmets used today in football utilize various soft materials inside a hard shell to lessen the stress on the head dealt by a direct impact. But is this really helping? According to this graph by footballoutsiders.com, the number of concussions happening in the NFL has dramatically increased in the last 10 years. Football helmets have also been undergoing the aforementioned renovations within that time.
While the timeline of the newly designed helmets does correlate with the timing of the dramatic increase of sustained concussions, I believe there may be some confounding variables present.
NFL players are getting bigger, faster, and stronger every year. This means that tackling is becoming ever more dangerous as each player carries more momentum that could land a devastating hit to a player’s head. But, as we create better padding to protect players, could we be doing the opposite effect? By giving more protection, the players are encouraged and more willing to go for those huge hits. If they had no padding, they would have to be a bit more careful when running into another person. Maybe it also has to do with the way we inherently think about going about performing a tackle. Usually it involves lowering your head and slamming into the ball carrier. Maybe we should be thinking about a safer way of tackling that doesn’t involve the head being so front and center. Luckily there is a sport that is so very similar to football, but just different enough in padding, tackling, and injury rates that makes a prefect comparison.
Let’s take a look at the sport of Rugby. It is played similarly to football, but a major difference is that rugby players using very little protective padding when compared to football players. This means that these players have to be more careful to avoid being seriously injured. That doesn’t go particularly well. According to the 2012 Sports Concussion Consensus Conference, the number of concussions per 1,000 players in Rugby was roughly 20 times higher than that of NFL players. However, rugby coaches have developed a method that seems much more effective for combating concussions than our current helmet technology. According to www.telegraph.co.uk, due to the fact that rugby players have so much less padding, they have to improvise their tackling techniques. Tackling happens so much more frequently in rugby than in football. So, rugby players have learned to tackle more efficiently as to protect their head more. In football, players usually slightly lower their head and dive right at the opposing player. In rugby, players are taught to get their head low, put it behind the opposing player, and mostly use their shoulder to do the majority of the tackle. While the NFL has implemented the penalty of targeting to discourage the use of he head when tackling, the overall mentality of tackling hasn’t changed. Rugby’s mentality of how to tackle is doing much more for the fight against concussions than the increased “protective” padding is doing for football.
So in conclusion, I believe the main reason for the rampant spread of concussions in the NFL lies not within the construction of the helmets and padding, but rather the whole way we go about tackling. If we take cues from the cousin known as rugby, we may do more in helping players achieve a less injured mind when they retire.