Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Jan 2011

National Brain-Damage League

And reader Ben passes on this link to a story in Slate by Shankar Vedantam covering the latest in concussion research by the league.

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 19 Jan 2011

62 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2011, 12:14am by TBI Researcher


by The Other Ben Johnson (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:15pm

Wow, I feel like a internet-age celebrity of synthesis.

What I like about the article is the inference that football's style of play has evolved with the helmet to become what it is now: organized brain damage.

Can you imagine an alternate-universe version of football where the violence and danger of the early sport was mitigated by rule changes rather than technological advances in protective gear? It would basically be Ultimate Frisbee as coached by Mike Leach.

It seems like the other technological track is leading us towards a dystopian future where the Fox football robots become Fox football reality.

Given the mounting evidence that we're fans of a sport that turns people's brains to mush, I like to think about these things.

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:28pm

While it is mildly troubling, I think there are other areas of society with much greater ethical sacrifices made in name the name of entertainment/economy/et cetera, with much less informed/free/compensated agents.

Now obviously just because there is always some greater ethical concern is not some reason to do nothing. But it is a reason to keep things in perspective. I think it is entirely plausible that even with complete foreknowledge of the risks most of the players would still play.

All that said I am in favor of moving to a league with only "tackling" and no "hitting" (i.e. you can drag someone to the ground, but you cannot impact them to the ground). It would change very little about the game and mitigate much of the damage.

Also getting rid of helmets might not be a terrible idea, but that is a very complicated issue.

by PatsFan :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:36pm

That's fine to say for the highly-paid professionals of the NFL.

But what about all the players all the way down the food chain to high school? As more and more stuff like this comes out, how can one in good conscience let their kids play a sport where routine play (just good old blocking and tackling, not even counting "jack'em up" hits) causes brain damage?

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 1:44pm

Kids also drink 12 cans of soda a day, and play in the woods with sticks or do any number of other health destroying things. I played hockey for many years, and dealt and received many concussions. I don't regret it in the slightest. It was a game and that is the way it was played, and I mostly had fun. I am very open to changing the game, but I don't see it as some great ethical catastrophe that it happened.

Would I rather have had a grandfather who was a chess coach instead of a hockey coach? Sure, but I also would rather have had a grandfather who was a millionaire instead of a school teacher.

Life doesn't need to be perfect and no one lives forever.

by Spielman :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:00pm

"I played hockey for many years, and dealt and received many concussions. I don't regret it in the slightest."

Yeah, that's probably the result of all the concussions.

(You left that one wide open.)

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:31pm

Except I have a ridiculous IQ (not that that is really worth anything, but it does show my mind functions), aced pretty much every academic/mental task anyone ever presented me with, and work at a job where I manage millions of dollars. So no I don't think the handful of serious concussions I recieved were greatly to my detriment. For example, I once woke up in the morning and was confused as why I wasn't still at the previous day's game even though I had played in the rest of it and driven myself home!

And just so it is clear I understand the seriousness of the issue, I have a friend who played college hockey and received a severe concussion, and then had serious problems with dizziness and blackouts for years. One day he was found just passed out in a snow bank, and is lucky he didn't die from exposure.

(And mood swings and depression, but to be honest he already had those problems and their increase in intensity is difficult to attribute to the concussions when he also was dealing with doing poorly in school and not playing hockey for the first time in his life).

Nevertheless I also have acquaintances who loved to gamble so much that they ended up in prison, or drink so much that they ended up putting their car through the front of a building and killing himself.

Life isn't all roses and fairy tales and as long as people are aware of the risks I don't see any great ethical issue with letting them entertain themselves and others at the cost of a little brain damage.

by Spielman :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:35pm

I'd argue that your sense of humor seems to have been badly damaged, though.

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:47pm

It is damaged by the fact that any time a discussion of concussions comes up, anyone who has actually had any experience with them gets this thrown in their face. In my experience not 80% or 90% of the time, but 100% of the time.

by herm :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:55pm

Given how high your IQ is, you should be able to understand basic concept that an anecdote is not particularly relevant in a discussion like this. Different people are affected differently- that you are still an incredible genius after receiving countless concussions does not mean that there is not a significant risk for others (or a future risk for yourself of course).

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:03pm

Given how high your IQ is, you should be able to understand basic concept that an anecdote is not particularly relevant in a discussion like this

It's also not particularly relevant since, being a super-genius, he had more brain that he could afford to lose anyway.

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:06pm

Well you should be smart enough to know that the anecdote isn't intended as "proof" (such things don't exist outside of math anyway). It is a counter-example. Singular. You are familiar with the concept of counter-examples? And the point isn't just about myself, it is that I played hockey with hundreds of people, many of whom received several concussions, and there was not massive widespread issues.

There are significant risks (Where did I not acknowledge that? My whole post is mostly ABOUT those risks). My point is simply that the risks don't warrant all the panic and hand wringing.

by Job601 (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:58pm

You are not acing the academic/mental task of winning this argument. The scientific research that's demonstrating the long term and hidden consequences can be argued with, but not by means of "counter-examples" like yours.

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:12pm

I am not arguing against consequences? Where do you see that?

by RickD :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 12:55am

Do you understand that not all smokers get lung cancer? And yet smoking does cause lung cancer?

OK, let's move on.

by Spielman :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:04pm

I can appreciate that hearing the same joke over and over would get on your nerves. I didn't anticipate that that would be the case, and for that, I'm sorry. I certainly won't make a joke in response to you again, on this or any other subject.

However, I'm still not sure why you'd mistake a bad or tired joke for a serious attack on your function that would require a speech about your genius in response.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:51pm

"Life isn't all roses and fairy tales and as long as people are aware of the risks I don't see any great ethical issue with letting them entertain themselves and others at the cost of a little brain damage."

Again, this assumes that all football players are professionals, and/or aware of the consequences of playing the game. I couldn't quote hard numbers on this, but I'd bet the majority of players in organized football are aged 18 or under. Kids are not capable of making educated decisions about long-term health risks.

I will say though, that I agree with you that for professionals, this is not as big of an ethical question in my mind. They're adults, and now that the risks are being talked about openly, they can judge the risk/reward for themselves.

by DaveRichters :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 10:20pm

Except I have a ridiculous IQ

You'll need to be more specific. The context of your statement seems to suggest "ridiculously high", but for various reasons that seems unlikely to me.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:35pm

I remember you making this same argument several months ago when this was a big story. Or if I'm confusing you with somebody else, my apologies -- somebody made this exact same argument, including the part about hockey. Anyway, it still doesn't make sense to me. The crux of the argument seems to be that because it was OK for YOU to receive multiple concussions, that it should be OK for ANYONE. That's the way it was, and we liked it.

The whole point of this concussion mini-panic is that we don't understand brain injuries well enough to know how much is too much, or how different people are affected. Some people are no worse for the wear; others develop Alzheimer's at age 40.

by Joshua Northey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:59pm

"The crux of the argument seems to be that because it was OK for YOU to receive multiple concussions, that it should be OK for ANYONE. That's the way it was, and we liked it."

That is a straw man. Read what I am saying.

1) We should try to mitigate the problem
2) I am open to what some people would see as rather radical rule changes.
3) I also don't see it as a pressing ethical concern worthy of the panic and alarmism I see from many people.
4) People do all sorts of things to damage themselves for monetary gain/entertainment.
5) When I played hockey we were concussing each other all the time and the world still seemed to function and most of us seemed to grow up normally without undue consequences.

You seem really fixated on 5 and your quote makes it clear you are trying your best to ignore 1-4.

I would also question the premise that this is all new news and people weren't aware of the risks. I remember lots of lectures about concussions, and the importance of mouth guards and keeping your jaw clenched, and the undesirability of getting knocked permanently batty in the 80s. If this was on the radar of a bunch of hard-ass old-timey hockey people (for instance my grandfather who played in the 40s and 50s) in northern Minnesota in the 80s it is not exactly like it is breaking news.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:31pm

"1) We should try to mitigate the problem"
I don't see where you said that, at least not in the post I was responding to. In fact, in your own words, you said that you're open to changing the game, but you don't see it as some great ethical catastrophe. Not to put words in your mouth, but that sounds a lot like you DON'T think there's much need to mitigate the problem. That's what I (and others, I suppose) are objecting to.

"4) People do all sorts of things to damage themselves for monetary gain/entertainment."
So what? Again, this reads like saying people get hurt all the time, so there's no sense worrying about it.

In other words, I wasn't ignoring your points 1-4 -- I was just interpretting them differently than you may have intended.

I focused on the hockey part because it encompasses more than half of your post, and because it's an example I've seen you use more than once as a way to belittle the concern people have about this issue. It makes no sense, and it makes you sound like you think your own experience is the only one that counts. I'm not saying that's what you meant, but that's how it comes off.

by JonC :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:42pm

Well, this threat quickly went off the rails!

Have a question: the violence and danger of the early sport (i.e. 1890-1905 or so) were mitigated by rule changes; banning player assistance and instituting the forward pass. What other rule changes do you think should be made in today's game to ameliorate the huge problem of concussions?

by 2468ben :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 6:37pm

Thanks for talking about solutions, instead of intellectual penis-fencing about the problem.

Does any of the FO game charting data (which I regret to say I haven't spent the $$ on) include injuries on a play? Can people see if there are any significant increases depending on the variable? Like the Curse of 370 includes lack of production in the ensuing season for injury or any other reason, but what about just injury?

pass vs run, yardage on play, down, field position, more detailed variables for Off/def line injuries, injured or injuring player's age & weight and did they have previous injuries that season, etc. Maybe this stuff exists, but if it doesn't I'd be happy to use my math-stats schooling and run some of this stuff for shits & giggles.

And I would buy access to some game charting data if the needed info's in there and no one else wants Sloppy Firsts.

Also, I know this doesn't directly address concussions, but it would be nice to start with a list of all charted plays with injuries, then be able to look through that small sub-set to get the head injuries and compare the accompanying stats to all-injury play stats and game-wide play stats.

by Dr. Mooch :: Fri, 01/21/2011 - 12:53pm

I would LOVE to see DVOA splits for QBs returning after a concussion compared with QBs returning after another type of injury.

by MooseIsLoose (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:46pm

Teaching players from a young age to not "put a hat on a hat" and instead block and tackle properly without using their helmets as a point of impact is the first big step that needs to be made. If pee-wee and high school football put those sort of regulations into effect, you'd see a new generation of players who know how NOT to hit the opposing player in ways that hurt themselves.

by R. Johnston (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 1:40pm

The whole point is that even if you don't hit the head or lead with your own, brain damage happens. A 40G collision, shoulder to chest, jars the brain every time, resulting in the brain impacting the skull. Hits involving the head are worse, both for the possibility of traumatic neck injury and because the blow to the brain can't be cushioned by appropriate motion of the head, but that doesn't lessen the damage done on routine hits that don't directly involve the head.

There is no way to tackle at full speed and not hurt the brain. It simply can't be done.

by AT (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:37pm

That is simply not true. I played pickup football with no pads for many years before finally playing tackle football my senior year of high school. By that point my natural instinct was to hit and tackle as though I wasn't wearing a helmet. I was a leading tackler (fast, undersized DT) and "big hitter" on one of the best teams at VA's highest level of public schools. I was also the "wedge buster" on the kickoff coverage team--and we kicked off a lot since our team scored nearly 60 touchdowns. Despite all that I made it through an entire 13 game season plus practices with no paint scars on my helmet and never had my "bell rung" once. I went on to play one year of D3 college ball at linebacker and took just one mild head shot during that year.

My point is that you *can* teach kids to protect their head. This may not eliminate all head-injuries, but it almost certainly result in a dramatic reduction.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:48pm

I think you missed the point he was making. He's not saying it's impossible to tackle without using your head. He's saying that even non-head-to-head tackles cause damage to the brain. I have no opinion on whether that's true, but that's what he was saying.

by GlennW :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:16pm

I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that tackling through the ballcarrier's body with the shoulder or arms (as opposed to a helmet-first collision) does not result in the kind of brain deceleration that is causing 99% of these concussions. Nearly every time we see a player staggering off the field, it's because he used his helmet, his helmet was contacted or his helmet bounced off the turf (the latter case being one which cannot practically be eliminated in a contact sport). As such I believe that the discussion around tackling techniques and rules enforcement is a productive one.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:29pm

Oh, I'm not disputing any of that. I was just saying that post 29 didn't really make a lot of sense as a response to post 7.

The idea that proper technique should reduce head injuries seems pretty self evident. "How much" is the other question. Hits to the head are what cause the obvious concussions, but the research is saying that the sub-concussive trauma from run-of-the-mill collisions adds up just as much as the big kill shots do. It just doesn't show up as missed games, so we tend to focus on the obvious "Stewart Bradley falling down" incidents. The damage from the little hits doesn't show up until many years later, and the idea that was put forth is that even proper tackles still add up as little hits.

by GlennW :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 6:01pm

Agreed. The only thing I would add is that plenty of these "little hits" are still routine helmet collisions (all you have to do is look at the players' gouged-up helmets at the end of the game to see that). You'll never completely eliminate those collisions especially near the line of scrimmage, and I wouldn't begin to know how to separate their cumulative effect from non-helmet impacts. I still strongly suspect though that direct contact to the helmet/head is far and away the majority contributor to both short- and longterm brain injury.

by AT (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 2:09pm

I didn't spell this out in my original post, but the research that shows many "small" 40G hits can still involve cumulative brain damage DO involve helmet-to-helmet contact on the line of scrimmage. They do not typically involve chest or shoulder contact on tackles. To reiterate--I was an undersized DT, led the defensive line in tackles, and still avoided using my helmet as evinced by the fact that I had no helmet scars. I was exactly the kind of player (undersized lineman) that coaches teach need to get "helmet on helmet" to be successful.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:36am

The brain isn't a marble rattling around in a cup. It's a hunk of structured jello floating in a liquid lining. If you shake an aquarium, does the fish slam into the walls of the tank?

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 12:39pm

Good analogy. That is, provided you keep your fish in a tank that's only slightly bigger than the fish itself.

by Bobman :: Fri, 01/21/2011 - 7:55pm

You both suck. Now I have five gallons of water on my son's floor and two gasping fish in his underwear drawer.... how the hell do I explain THAT!?!!?

Wait... super-genius that I undoubtedly am, I can fabricate a web of intricate, nefarious, yea, even sinister excuses. Or blame it on the cats.

by Anonymus (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 1:27pm

There is no professional sport that is healthy.

by DavidL :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 1:29pm


by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:05pm


by Randy Hedberg (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:12pm

Frostbite and cirrhosis.

by akn (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:40pm

Frostbite, cirrhosis, and narcolepsy.

by young curmudgeon :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:12pm

If you watched the women's curling competition in the last Olympics, some of the team members (Canada and Switzerland come to mind, there may have been others) would obviate frostbite and narcolepsy--hot and attention-getting. Not so sure about cirrhosis, though...

by Andrew W (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 6:08pm

Not even curling. Damaged knees and broken collarbones, largely. (The slide delivery is hard on the joints, and you're on ice with teflon on your feet, you will fall over sooner or later.)

Also, the booze, but that was less of a thing at schools level.

Golf's a similar thing with the arthritis. Darts, again, drinking. Snooker; beta-blockers. Cycling's pretty OK as long as you're not on drugs and you don't crash, but you are and you will...

by Bobman :: Fri, 01/21/2011 - 7:57pm

Swimming? It's a great aerobic workout and, if you're not me with real bad shoulders, drowning is probably not s significant risk.

by morganja :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:08pm

I know my perspective completely changed when I no longer was thinking about myself getting concussions, and I got a lot, and started thinking about my son getting concussions.
Having said that, I was taught the proper way to block and tackle in high school. I never had a problem with concussions until after, when it seemed no one was taught how to hit properly. I would have thought proper technique and wrapping up would be second nature by that point. Obviously most kids are never taught the proper way. If it was taught and enforced starting in high school or before, there might not be nearly the crisis that it is now.

by PatsFan :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 4:22pm

But (according to the article) it's not just concussions. The repeated "small", concussion-free blows from line play also appear to cause brain damage similar to those who did have concussions.

by Anonymous Coward (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 10:31pm

Exactly, it's what a lot of people have been saying since this whole thing started. Eliminating the big hits is just for show. Mike Webster never got knocked out cold or got his bell rung, but he was face to face with nasty dude making "proper" blocks most of his career.

How many receivers have ended up with his fate.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:41am

Long-term studies of football players suffer from a lack of controls. NFL linemen simply are not normal humans. You can't find control populations for people who run, as an average, 6'5" and 310 pounds. Compounding this is a typical history of childhood poverty, years of pain-killer abuse, anabolic steroids, and various other medical measures designed to survive an NFL season. All of these have ramifications on brain development and long-term brain health.

A similar observation exists for the low life-expectancy of linemen. It's notable that NBA players have a similar problem, despite running about 100lb lighter than linemen. Their height alone may be the primary issue.

by Some_FF-Player_in_nawlins (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 2:45pm

This is a problem that won't magically go away any time soon. Helmets can only do so much to mitigate the impact to the brain and skull. Football, as a sport, puts a heavy load of abuse on the whole body, the head being no exception. It just seems to be more sensitive to things than the rest.

At this point, there is no magic fix for things. There is a possibility of further mitigating the impact to the head and neck by fusing the shoulder pads and helmet into one assembly with the helmet limited to a 120 degree arc of rotation forward and a +45 and -10 degree tilt angle. This protects the neck from taking a blow that would potentially break it and mitigates the strain on the neck muscles as well. This also forces blows to the head to transmit a greater portion of their forces to the torso where it can be better absorbed by the full mass of the player and reduce the instantaneous acceleration on the skull. Combined with improvements in shock absorbing materials in the helmet, this can likely be enough mitigation to reduce concussions by over half and also dramatically reduce the overall severity of head trauma received from traditional contact practice drills.

That's about the best that we can do given current technology. Such an assembly would likely be no more than twice the price of an existing high end combination of helmet and shoulder pads. While that's definitely not cheap, it's also not rediculously expensive. Such an assembly should be mandated for EVERY LEVEL OF PLAY, from pee wee football through the pros. A full mouth guard should also be mandated as the use of which has been shown to also offer mitigation of head trauma from hits to the helmet. If you or your school/organization can not afford the required gear, get with an organization that can, or play touch or flag football until you can.

I grew up in a poorer section of my hometown and know the mentality of many parents of what you would consider to be a stereotypical family where the kid's only hope at wealth or a post high school education is a sports scholarship and professional play or massive, life crippling debt afterwards. Kids are driven to perform by their parents, coaches and peers. Parents want their kids to be stand out performers, delivering highlight reel performances at every level to be attractive to scouts for the next one. Coaches want kids to go out and perform without concern for their bodies to achieve victory so that they can retain their jobs or move up to the next levels. Peers are taught that winning is the only things and push it on each other day after day. Yes, there may be exceptions, but they are few and far between. This happens in playground leagues, junior varsity parochial schools, large public high schools, small christian schools in east Texas and even the smallest and largest college programs.

I fear that without the force of law acting to speed these things along, the transition will be slow, continue to get slower, and eventually stop as the most influential in the game decide that things are good enough. Lets do the one thing that no one will be able to avoid without facing great personal penalties for doing so. Lets mandate the development and use of an apparatus similar to what I discribed above. I have no financial interest in any aspect of that, hold no patents or applications or IP related to it. I do have 5 kids, two of which REALLY want to play and demonstrate good atheltic potential but can't convince me to sign the permission forms. I know the meat grinder that the growth up through the different levels can be because I went through it until wrecking my knees in high school.

Until something is done to cover up the lack of concern for personal safety that exists in the sport through the continued advancement of poor form for flashy highlights over proper method, no child of mine will ever step foot on an organized field to play tackle football. And, if I have anything to say about it, neither will my grand kids.

by Mello :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 9:16am

That's your choice on what to decide for your kids. I'm uncomfortable with people trying to change the sport (I'm not talking about equipment improvements here) for everyone else that make another choice. Some of us can accept that many activities in life including football carry risks. If my kid ends up wanting to play football, I'll be fine with that. I'd also be fine if he ends up wanting to race cars, base jump, or whatever other activity he finds fun in life. Part of that is teaching the risks and what actions can be taken to be as safe as possible. In the end, there's more to life than just being safe and living the longest.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 10:40am

"Part of that is teaching the risks and what actions can be taken to be as safe as possible."

Agreed 100%, but is it really possible to teach the risks to a child? Children routinely demonstrate that they have little concept of their own mortality. My guess is that the average 12-year-old, or even the average 17-year-old, is not capable of truely grasping what "permanent injury" means, regardless of whether we're talking about knees or brains.

by The Other Ben Johnson (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 3:32pm

Glad this is sparking some fun debate.

The aspect of it I like to consider most is the idea that the use of helmets in football may ultimately have caused more trouble than it prevents. Somewhat akin to this phenomenon: http://www.perc.org/pdf/Forest%20Policy%20Up%20in%20Smoke.pdf

I don't see it as a huge crisis, and I DO see the concussion issue emerging as somewhat of a moral panic with the ultimate effect of exacerbating the already existing class gap between those who participate in the sport at a youth level and those who choose not to based on health concerns.

Regardless, it's clear that at least a few cats are out of the bag in terms of clinical research about the deleterious effects of football collisions. People here are making great arguments that cultural change will be a more effective, and more effectively enforced, method of regulation for a sport that clearly needs to change, although some changes to regulatory structure will probably also be necessary. It's also fair to argue against too much change too soon, as widespread backlash could have a devastating affect on the young people who play the sport. And as a long-term narrative, I don't think anybody wants football to morph into Rollerball.

I guess we'll have to wait and see how it unfolds.

My point is: the helmet could be the whole reason why we're here. I find the whole "man invents technology, man adapts his behavior to incorporate the use of such technology, things go bad for man" story to be a pretty compelling one, and I had never previously considered the football helmet to be a link in that chain. It's fascinating.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:46am

The aspect of it I like to consider most is the idea that the use of helmets in football may ultimately have caused more trouble than it prevents.

They haven't. Players aren't dying of head injuries anymore.

Incidentally, rugby, which uses helmets somewhat akin to what the NCAA used in the 1930s (if they use them at all), has a concussion problem of its own. The trend we're seeing is an increasing awareness of concussion and a rise in diagnoses.

by The Other Ben Johnson (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 12:09pm

Right, understood. I don't think anybody wants to go back to the days where football fatalities were common enough to barely warrant mention. But the style of play back then was different than it is now, is my point. If you tried to headhunt somebody, the next play would be an all sweep directly at your face and you'd be trampled to death. Plus players went both ways (that's what she said), so you'd get jacked up on offense too. The regulation against going too far was more cultural back then.

Now, thanks to a few generations of helmet use and a more than healthy dose of money, we've got James Harrison out there. Instead of getting stabbed in the gut with a shiv in the middle of a pile-up, his only deterrent against removing Mohammad Massoquai's head is a $75,000 fine. You're right to jump on the poor word choice of "caused more trouble than it prevents," I don't think there's a cogent argument for that. But I think "unintended consequences that are just now coming to light" is accurate.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 01/21/2011 - 5:28pm

The cultural comment is BS.

Deacon Jones committed what would be a personal foul on every snap. The NFL changed the rules three times solely to prevent Night Train Lane from hurting people. (It consecutively banned the facemask, the spear, and the clothesline) Chuck Bednarick and Dick Butkus were famous for what now would be huge fines. Butkus once tackled a player in the stands!

Players headhunted all the time through the 1970s. Jack Tatum happily paralyzed Darryl Stingley. No one ever got those guys back for it, either.

by JMM* (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:41pm

As someone who has over 25 years of experience in advanced materials and plastics, I firmly believe: 1) The current level of football helmet performance is nowhere near where is could be, nor where is will be in 2 - 3 years. 2) No matter how far helmet design and technology advance there will be brain injuries that result from football. There was a recent NY Times article which dealt with helmets and some of the (legal and business) forces which act on the development. These forces have hindered the development of truly high performance helmets. Until recently, the designs have been focused on reducing or eliminating the chances of skull fracture. Helmet designs are essentially where auto bumper and safety designs were in the late '70's.

Concussions happen one of two ways. The first is due to trauma on the head. This force can injure the brain as we would expect. The brain can also be damaged by a rapid change in direction with no impact, say caused by a hit to the midsection and causing a rapid deceleration. In this case the brain hits the skull and becomes damaged. Helmet advances will not address these.

The research discussed in this article is interesting, but not nearly enough. The NFL, and the NCAA, should have 2-3 accelerometers in every helmet for a year or two. This would provide the design database needed to make proper helmets.

At this point one of three forces will drive the change which will happen over the next 5-10 years: The courts and insurance companies will establish guidelines, continuing the path which has brought us to this point, the Federal Government will establish regulations (think OSHA), or the NFL and NCAA will step up and establish specifications using real data.

by Revenge of the NURBS (not verified) :: Wed, 01/19/2011 - 5:53pm

I love the idea of the accelerometers. I also doubt it'll ever happen, because the results would likely be shocking, and the powers that be almost certainly know that.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:47am

I can rattle off a bunch of NCAA teams that already do, including Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Brown.

by ChicagoRaider :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 1:15pm

I predict that if an organization does not start doing so now, they will be settling lawsuits. There is a known risk and a way of monitoring it to reduce irreparable injury. Pop Warner may get away without doing it. But once we are talking about adult-level strength how can you not?

The legal system does not love football.

by TBI Researcher (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 4:58pm

This story was written based on a presentation at a Journal Laureates shindig at Purdue in November, about a month after the research article was accepted by Journal of Neurotrauma.

The NFL is presently planning to trot out a pilot of three current telemetry systems (HITS/SRS - helmet based, X2 - mouthguard based and some ear canal-based system with which I am unfamiliar). One of the west coast teams has been using the X2 system, but I don't know which one.

Most of the funding seems to be going to genetic studies having the goal of identifying "predisposition" to concussions. This doesn't seem terribly practical, because, as was noted by others, concussions arise from mechanical trauma associated with collisions, which need not even be helmet-to-helmet (c.f. Tebow during his senior year), so occurrences are a result of "opportunity" (i.e., they don't just happen to you as you are walking down the street...unless your street is really bad, of course).

So, perhaps some of this IS the fact that the powers-that-be really don't want to know, but I think it is also a failure on the part of many of the medical folks involved to understand what really constitutes "concussion" (it has a long ambiguous history) and that brain injury need not be associated with external symptoms at the time of the injury or even soon thereafter (a point the hockey guy, above, missed). Once this point is understood, however, it is pretty easy to see that "concussion" is NOT a problem limited to sport, but ties into the military and civilian life (e.g., car accidents, domestic abuse, falls), and is a much larger problem worthy of more detailed investigation.

by zlionsfan :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 9:27pm

It's difficult to get people to understand the dangers inherent in sports like football and hockey today because we're talking about a) the brain, which is pretty difficult to measure accurately no matter what you're trying, b) individual events that can be hard to identify in a set of thousands (think of the number of times one player hits another during a 60-minute game), and c) damage that frequently doesn't show itself until many years after the players' careers are over.

This is pretty significant change of one sort or another; people are generally resistant to change, more so when it involves something they love, and even more so when it's something they may not have realized (or may actually have ignored). It has to be difficult to avoid saying something like "Well, I don't see those effects in myself, nor in my teammates, so I don't think this is what you think it is."

Maybe one obstacle is the fact that no one's really identified an approach that will clearly reduce occurrences of injuries and injury-inducing hits ... I mean, that's kind of what got us here in the first place, right? Helmets (and eventually, better helmets), originally to protect the head. So current and former players might feel like we're trying to make them play touch football or no-check hockey, and that could also prompt a reaction.

It makes me sad to read some of the stuff about the NHL ... trying to explain why hits to the head really aren't that big of a deal, pretending that nothing is really worth that much of a suspension ... and it's not like the NHL is the big-ticket league it was 20 years ago.

It also makes me sad to hear people suggest that we should be focusing on other things (as if society could only manage to change one thing at a time) or that you can't prevent all injuries, things like that. What's wrong with trying to make football (or any sport, for that matter) safer for everyone who plays it? And who's to say that some of the things we discover won't improve careers in addition to football?

Maybe it is like smoking. For a long, long time, society didn't have anything to say about smoking. Evidence began to suggest that perhaps smoking might not be good for you, but some people wouldn't believe it no matter what, and of course tobacco companies did everything they could to bury that evidence. Even when the evidence was overwhelming, there were people (not necessarily just tobacco company shills) denying that smoking was bad for you.

So maybe someday we'll be able to tell young fans about a bygone era where you could target a guy's head, knock him senseless, and then act all aggrieved when the league had the temerity to fine you for it. (Not that I agree with the general way in which the NFL has decided to "change" things, but there are definitely some players who obviously have no thoughts for consequences to themselves or to their fellow union members.)

by TBI Researcher (not verified) :: Thu, 01/20/2011 - 11:59pm

I like your point "that no one's really identified an approach that will clearly reduce occurrences of injuries and injury-inducing hits." While Guskiewicz did acknowledge in an NYT article that looking at technique could be one thing that helps, this really hasn't been the direction people have gone. As has been noted in several media appearances, there really is nothing in football that inherently must lead to neuronal injury...nothing makes all of these blows to the head a necessary consequence of play...but you also cannot eliminate them because, well, some of them just happen.

From my observation, a lot of the problem is that the guys who now coach didn't actually understand what they were told to do (not uncommon in ANY field, of course). Best we can tell, they were all given the traditional dictum about three points of contact (of which one is the head) for a tackle, and the corollary dictum about getting a helmet on the guy (intended to mean that you really do need to wrap him up well). Rather, they seem to have taken this latter dictum to be the primary action, with the wrap being the necessary consequence. This was largely enabled/abetted by modern helmet technology, of course, 'cause it HURTS to get drilled with the helmet and is (therefore) disruptive to the ball carrier.

So, if (as suggested above) one can succeed in improving technique and also re-examine the helmets (as suggested by the materials guy, above), I think one can make a substantial impact in the long-term outcomes for players. Of course, changing a culture (in this case, the coaches and the media who glorify the crunching hits) takes time (and money...).

Last, if one considers that over 1 million kids played HS football each of the last few years, and then extends the fraction of the population that played any sort of organized football (from Little Giants to college) back over, say, 50 years, we're probably talking about 20 million people who may be at risk of experiencing early dementia or impulse control issues. Many diseases that may afflict up to 20 million people get serious publicity.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Fri, 01/21/2011 - 5:33pm

The NFL is presently planning to trot out a pilot of three current telemetry systems (HITS/SRS - helmet based, X2 - mouthguard based and some ear canal-based system with which I am unfamiliar). One of the west coast teams has been using the X2 system, but I don't know which one.

The ear canal system is likely similar to what F1 racing tested in the early 2000s. There are some SAE articles about it. I don't think those ear canal sensors can handle rotational accelerations, though, unless they've shrunk the sensors some.

by TBI Researcher (not verified) :: Sun, 01/23/2011 - 12:14am

I believe this particular ear canal system is the one used in the IRL. None of these systems will accurately handle rotational accelerations (though the HITS folks think they do). It ultimately becomes something like a 24 degree of freedom problem, and (as far as I know) none of these systems provides more than 6 measurements.

From a practical standpoint, the mouthguard approach makes the most sense, but not clear you can get enough measurements there.