NFL Can Solve Concussion Problem But Isn’t

The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

Now that the NFL concussion problem has gotten the attention of PBS’ Frontline tv news documentary program newsletterplease

its time for this multi-billion-dollar per year business to do the simple and necessary steps required to reduce dangerous head injuries to its players. They need to do so now before their neglect on this subject becomes a financial and legal liability that will eventually lead to the elimination of the game we love.

In “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” Frontline showed that the biggest sports league in the world has knowingly sent too many players into retirement with what appear to be permanent brain injuries.

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As I wrote in a June 2012 blog “NFL Concussion Problem is Solvable” one of the steps the NFL could take right now, this year is to put padding on the outside of the hard-shell helmets their players wear. It’s been done before by at least two players in the 1990s.

Buffalo Bill Mark Kelso padded his helmet.

Buffalo Bill Mark Kelso padded his helmet.

Buffalo’s Mark Kelso was no bench-warming back-up player. He wore his padded helmet while forging a 7 year NFL career and playing in four Super Bowls.

Steve Wallace in his "Cone helmet"

Steve Wallace in his “Cone helmet”

San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace wore a foam cap. He was good enough to play in a Pro Bowl. Why don’t players protect themselves by wearing these easily manufactured foam caps on their hard-shell helmets? Because they can. Players can choose to do this on their own without the league stepping in. They don’t because too many of them think they make you look bad, or geeky, nerdy, or uncool. It’s such a sad statement in our society the clothing appearance is more important than the risk of life long medical disability.

The next question is why doesn’t the NFL require the foam padding on the outside of the helmets? It’s a mystery. Though you can guess it has something to do with style, appearance, aesthetics.

There is still more they can do. During the last off-season the NFL announced that it would require its players to start wearing padding in the football pants, in particular, over their knees. This is a huge step. Just think of how many times we’ve seen a player knocked senseless while blocking or tackling and inadvertently being kicked in the head by another players knee. It happens all the time. Common sense would presume that a pad on the knee and a thin pad on the players helmet would do a lot less neurological damage than a hard knee smashing into a head covered by a hard-shell helmet. The problem is the NFL delayed this change, the mandatory padding, until 2014. It’s hard to imagine why; especially when at the time of the announced change more than 2000 thousand former players had joined in a class action lawsuit against the NFL claiming damages from head trauma during their playing years continued to plague them into retirement.  The lawsuit was settled in August 2013 for $765-million and a guarantee of lifetime medical insurance coverage.

NFL Referees have increasingly thrown flags for helmet hits. The league has also increased the frequency and amount of fines it assesses players every week for those same helmet hits. And I applaud such action.

I am not among the foolish whiners who claim their taking away what we love best about this vicious game, the big hard hits. For the past 20-30 years players have not tackled properly. They fly at the ball carriers, usually with their head down, and essentially “push” them as hard as they can hoping the guy with the ball falls down. (I know I’m simplifying…bear with me) But watch the old, I mean 1960s-old NFL Films highlight reels of Tommy Nobis, Dick Butkis, Chuck Bednarick, Ray Nitschke, Deacon Jones. These Hall of Famers and all others at that time didn’t lower their heads and run into the ball carrier. They kept their heads up to see. They collided with the runner and they wrapped their arms around, and lifted and drove backwards with their legs. This is how I was taught how to tackle at Bellevue, Washington’s Olde Jr High, and then Sammamish High School in 1976-1982. In watching those old highlight films I challenge you to tell me they didn’t hit and tackle hard, and that those hits were exciting. They were savage and brutal. They were great. A perfectly executed hit-wrap-lift-and drive tackle is still more exciting to me then some head collision.

Teaching how to tackle properly again and added padding on the outside of helmets and over the players knees can only help. And it better. Because in our litigious society increasing evidence of repeated concussion trauma and its life time effects on the players will only lead to the inevitable legislative control and eventual loss of the great game of football.

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NFL Concussion Problem is Solvable

This blog was written in June 2012 but is still timely, especially following the previous weekend’s games in which a number of key players including Michael Vick and Jay Cutler were lost to concussion.

More than 2000 NFL players filed a lawsuit against the league Thursday over the growing issue of concussions, the injuries derived from them, and the National Football League’s handling of them in the past. These players claim long-term neurological damage from their time playing football. I’ve thought for years how this can be largely solved by doing something that has already been done.

Buffalo Bill Mark Kelso padded his helmet.

Buffalo Bill Mark Kelso padded his helmet.

It’s not your imagination if the helmet being worn by former Buffalo Bills Safety Mark Kelso looks a little larger than a normal football players helmet. Look at it closely and you can see Kelso had a foam padding created as a shell for the top of the head-gear. And Kelso was no slouch player. He played seven years for the Bills from 1986 to 1993, and started in four Super Bowls. Kelso began wearing the cap after…wait for it…a concussion.

And Kelso wasn’t the only one to show wisdom. Rather than give in to the vanity of thinking the cap makes the helmet too big and look funny, San Francisco 49er offensive tackle Steve Wallace wore a foam cap on his helmet too.

Steve Wallace in his "Cone helmet"

Steve Wallace in his “Cone helmet”

And Wallace played in a Pro Bowl.

The argument against these big helmets has come from the players. Not the NFL. And to bitch about the aesthetics of something that could significantly increase your own safety, for the rest of your life, is just plain silly. It’s vanity. Besides, if ALL the players are wearing the same larger helmets you won’t look odd. You’d look odd not wearing one.

The player’s lawsuit is the biggest one ever filed in sports. In all likelihood there will be a settlement for hundreds of millions of dollars and it will never go to court. Which is probably good for the players since they are the ones refusing to wear the foam caps which have been available for them to wear for more than 20 years. Most players also refuse to wear knee pads in their pants. They claim the knee and thigh pads slow them down, and don’t protect their legs much. However much they protect their legs, they are likely to protect another players head considerably. Or, have you not seen dozens of players knocked out of games over the years by taking an inadvertent knee to the head?

Fortunately the league has mandated that all players begin wearing knee and thigh pads again beginning in the 2013 season. Why they’re waiting that extra season makes no sense to me. They could start protecting players immediately.

Lastly Commissioner Roger Goodell should continue to crack down on helmet to helmet hits. Players need to be reminded it’s not the proper, or sure way of tackling anyway. Look at NFL Films clips from the 60s and 70s. You don’t see a lot of head shots. Tackles were made in a less vicious way. But they were still excitingly violent. I was taught to plant my facemask squarely in the ball-carriers chest and to wrap him up. Watch Dick Butkis, Merlin Olson, Jack Lambert, Mean Joe Green, Mel Blount, Ronnie Lott or any of the All-Timers. They weren’t head hunters. They were superb defensive tacklers.

It’s always frustrating when a problem persists despite answers being readily available. The NFL didn’t become a multi-billion dollar industry by being stupid. Though they will be if they don’t institute these simple and available solutions. Failing to do so in years to come would leave the league criminally negligent.

Thanks for visiting. Comments are welcome.