The Player Safety Conundrum

The Player Safety Conundrum
Reading Time: 7 minutes.

Two player safety stories bookended the 2019 season. Former Oakland and New England receiver Antonio Brown was mired in a month long back and forth about his non-regulation helmet during preseason. Many suspected his behaviour stemmed from football induced head trauma. The postseason saw the release of the much anticipated Aaron Hernandez Netflix documentary which cited Chronic Traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a potential component in his criminal activity and self-medication. 

A History of Head Injuries 

The history of football cannot be told without reference to player injuries. Before the modern era kicked off in the 1970s, football resembled wrestling. With the reliance on full and half backs to run the ball over passing, everything was low to the ground hand to hand combat. 

Because players were using leather helmets without face masks in such close quarters, injuries were common. In 1906, a Harvard student athlete died from a head injury and the team doctors released a report titled “The Physical Aspect of American Football” in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal describing the type, severity, and number of injuries the team sustained in the 1905 season.  

Polymers were introduced in the 1950s and 1960, bringing low cost and lightweight helmets to the market. The NFL also recommended face masks for players in 1955 reducing the number of broken noses and teeth, but also necessitating new rules prohibiting opposing players from grabbing the face mask.

Since then, helmets are a science in themselves. In 2002, Riddell introduced helmets specifically designed in response to a study relating to concussions sustained during on field play. 

The impact

The notion that a player with more substantial coverage suffers less from concussions and broken bones is well intended. Yet, with heavier and harder safety gear comes heavier and harder hits. The sound of a helmet hitting another helmet became as notoriously recognizable to NFL fans as their stadium chants. A player getting hit by a 300lb lineman in polycarbonate padding is likely to suffer greater impact than if the lineman was without.

Nothing was starker of the impact of these changes than Chicago Bears Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson. Duerson played 10 seasons in the NFL, heading to two Super Bowls and being a Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1987. In 2011, Duerson had taken his own life. The accompanying note left to his family stated: ‘“PLEASE, SEE THAT MY BRAIN IS GIVEN TO THE NFL’S BRAIN BANK’. After medical professionals at Boston University enacted his dying wish, they found signs of CTE that he has sustained from hits during his playing career. Whether his suicide was a direct result of his injuries remains to be seen. The resuting actions that followed his suicide kept him as a one of the most formative player safety advocates.

2019 Rule Changes

Every year since Duerson’s tragic suicide has seen the NFL enact rule changes in the hopes of improving player safety. 2019 saw two key player safety changes: ending the blindside block and implementing 2018’s kick off rule change.

The Blindside Block is one of the most notorious ways to injure players. The league decided to to expand protection of defenseless players by eliminating it. A blocker is now prohibited to initiate forcible contact with his head, shoulder or forearm when his path is toward or parallel to his own end lines

Furthermore, the kick off rules that were tested in 2018 were implemented after reducing concussions by 35%. This saw an end to wedge blocks during kick off, restriction of double team blocks to members of the receiving team and ensuring 8 players are inside the 15 yard set up line. 

2019 also saw a much better implementation of the previous year’s ban on leading with the helmet. Rules take time to cement into the psyche of players, especially those with hundreds of games under their belt. This was one of the less frequent penalties called as players and play callers alike truly understood the impact a helmet to helmet hit can have on a player. 

Hope

The Annual Health and Safety Report is released every year to quantify the impact of the rule changes on player safety. Given the heightened awareness of the impact of the sport on health, it was more anticipated than ever. 

According to the 2019 Report, these rule changes have made an impact on reducing season ending injuries. In 2019, ACL and MCL injuries are down year on year.

For players, this provides a positive outlook. ACL and MCL injuries require 6 to 8 months of rehabilitation before playing again. This is without the guarantee of a player returning to their former self. Redskins running back Adrian Peterson is a rare exception to the rule that an older player can come back from an ACL tear and perform at a high level.  

It also provides greater safety for a team’s front office by lessening injury risk when considering contract deals. 

Inconsistencies

While there were upsides to these rule changes, change in year on year concussions remains inconsistent. While the Health and Safety report claims to be making positive steps, the data suggests otherwise. The long term change in concussions isn’t a slow decline but a consistent wave. This is in spite of better technology and more informed rule changes. 

Furthermore, this season also saw some of the more harrowing concussions on the field. Notably, the hit on Philadelphia’s Avonte Maddox from Packers’ Andrew Sandejo endures. Around the world, fans waited with baited breath as his lifeless figure was taken from the field. It was a stark reminder that footbal is still a contact sport where players are putting their lives at risk. 

Long term

These risks are decisions that can span an entire lifetime, yet they’re made in Middle School and earlier. With limited data on the long term effects of constant hits and head trauma, it’s hard for players and their families to make a long term decision about the risk and reward of choosing football over baseball.  

A study by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined 3,349 NFL players who played at least five seasons from 1959 to 1988. The findings suggest that in comparison to the typical American male NFL players have three times the risk of death associated with neurodegenerative disorders. In particular, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was four times higher among former players than the average American male.

Players in this study played without safer polycarbonate and padded helmets. Yet, with concussions remaining stagnant, hits getting harder and relatively short spans of data, it is entirely possible that the difference between players today and those in the 1980s is minimal.

The NFL is fundamentally a dangerous sport. Adrenaline and testosterone are a potent cocktail far more influential for a player in the moment than the looming threat of a yellow flag and a 15 yard penalty. Football is popular because it sits in a venn diagram of extreme athleticism, precision analytics and primal competition. The league can use new technologies and implement rule changes in the name of player safety. However, that can only do so much while maintaining the essence of the sport. 

Players taking it into their own hands

Antonio Brown might have dominated pre-season headlines for his elaborate PR campaigns, but one story truly shook NFL fans. Much loved Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement at the young age of 30. He spoke candidly about the trauma the sport had put on his body, physically and mentally. Through tears, he shared his story of dealing with chronic pain caused by years of hits. Given what studies show about the link between sustained head injuries and neurodegenerative disorders in later life, this seemed like long term self preservation for a man who simply can’t do it anymore. 

Carolina stud linebacker Luke Kuechly followed suit, announcing his retirement at the age of 28. Fans will remember him as a player delivering crushing blocks to opposing teams. Yet, the image of Kuechley being taken off the field in tears against the New Orleans Saints endures. He is dazed and heartbroken, realising the reality of the sport he is playing. Kuechly stepping away from the sport is not directly attributed to injuries like Luck. However, there is a correlation after him suffering 3 seasons of consecutive concussions that’s hard to ignore.

Players choosing to end their careers early for self preservation is a relatively new occurrence, and it is one that is likely to increase as more information is released about long term health impacts. There are players that are lucky enough to keep playing like Frank Gore, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Yet, for some, an extended career isn’t worth risking their lives. 

NFLPA and the new CBA 

The NFL and the NFL Player’s Association are currently in the negotiation stages of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The proposed CBA includes several policies likely inspired by the past seasons activities. It would include time limits on full speed practise where players can suffer serious injuries, an increase in roster space to minimise strain on certain players as well as relaxing rules on marijuana use which many players take for medical reasons. 

There’s also a nod to the recents spate of early retirements. The CBA has drafted an increase of rookie salaries by $100k with an increase of $50k in the following year. If players are going to retire before they can hit superstar contracts, teams will be looking to frontload contracts to attract the best players in their physical prime rather than wait. It’s a positive step in lessening the financial considerations for players wanting to prioritise their physical health. 

However, the initial draft proposes an additional regular season game, which does not bode well for players already physically struggling through a 16 game season. Everything above is positive for protecting players, yet this proposal highlights that decisions around player health come second to money. 

Substantial changes would have been made before now if the league was truly invested in player safety. Yet, the essence of football isn’t in the analytics or sportsmanship. The essence lies in the tackles, the risks, the violent spectacle. Without that, football becomes just another sport. And where’s the money in that? 

Header Image: Getty
Graphs: Adam Ruszkowski / https://ruszkow.ski/

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