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A look at Concussion: Potential Methods to Reduce its Prevalence and Severity

So fellow Eagles fans, during a bout a pre-exam revision (neurophysiology in fact) I thought it apt to delve into concussion to procrastinate throw out some ideas which may have the potential to reduce the prevalence and severity of concussions in the NFL. The problem with concussions and the NFL has been pretty thoroughly highlighted in recent seasons. We have seen the implementation of a strict regime for players with potential concussion to undertake before returning to the game. An independent neurologist alongside an assigned team neurologist must establish if the player is totally asymptomatic and capable of safely returning to the field of play. This of course is a good move as it helps prevent further injury to the player.

We have also seen an automatic 15 yard penalty given for helmet to helmet hits. In addition to this we have seen fines and suspensions being served to the players guilty of making these hits. All of us remember a certain Dunta Robinson acquainting himself with a certain DeSean Jackson 18 months or so ago and picking up a fine. James Harrison of course picked up a one game suspension for a helmet to helmet hit on Colt McCoy which resulted in concussion. These fines are also a step in the right direction in presenting an incentive to play 'safely'.

So that brought me to asking myself the following: Is this enough? What else could be done to protect players without diluting our favourite sport? I would say a resounding no and yes to those questions respectively. So what can be done? What should be done? See following the jump for more details:

So where does one start other than looking at what is making the current measured inadequate and unsuccessful.

The improved handling and medical supervision of players with potential and diagnosed concussion although a good idea with the potential of preventing further injury does not address the issue of preventing concussions occurring. Depending on sideline medical exams to combat concussion and improve player safety is much like expecting the fire department to prevent fires starting. In short addressing the symptom as opposed to the cause.

This brings me back to the previously mentioned fines, penalties and suspensions served to players who dish out helmet to helmet hits. Although in theory great, this cannot work through the simple principal of combating what football is. A collision sport. Having played Football myself (Defensive End & OLB) I know that all I wanted to do was to smash the hell out of anyone from the other team who had the ball. To dominate whoever lined up against me. It was war in shoulder pads. We all love bit hits, both watching them and dishing them out. So a fine/suspension/penalty is not going to stop you when you are pumping full of adrenaline flying at the ball carrier. It is totally unnatural to be expected to stop. The one logical course that will evolve from enforcing suspensions and penalties is that future generations of football players will be coached not to hit, resulting in a dilution of long standing blue collar hard nosed football. Which does not walk hand in hand with player safety.

So what can be done to maintain the quality of football we watch on Sundays whilst improving player safety?

Improved Helmet Design:

First I will point you towards this article I read back November 2010. Following his concussion thanks to a brutal helmet to helmet hit from Dunta Robinson, DeSean Jackson began wearing an anti-concussion helmet designed by Schutt (and not Riddell whom are contracted to produce helmets for the NFL). Even the article raised the valid point If such technology exists, why isn't everyone wearing these helmets?. More importantly should it not be asked If Roger Goodell is so committed to player safety, why is he not putting pressure on Riddel to design anti-concussion helmets? Or why are the anti-concussion helmets designed by Schutt made compulsary for all players?

I believe that introducing and making these anti-concussion helmets compulsory will help prevent the initial occurrence of concussion. Even if it was only by 10%, it is a start.

Reduced Season & Extra Bye Weeks:

In a study done with College Football players, it was observed that in the benign cases of concussion (ie those sustained without a stereotypical big hit), this mostly occurred in tired players whom were receiving head impacts a fraction of the size that they had dealt with as early as a few snaps before. The conclusion was made that in these cases the concussion was caused not by a 'final' impact, but in fact by the accumulation of impacts over a sustained period of time, be it during a game or during a season. With this in mind, it would be prudent to do the following, reduce the length of the season, and increase the number of bye weeks.

Although this would seem a strange method to get around it, would there be any harm in losing a pre-season game or two? We already know Roger Goodell wants to push for an 18 game schedule at the expense of 2 pre-season games, so why not just push for their removal? Pre-season games usually do not provide good quality football and other than for a few quarters we see nothing more than training camp bodies, scrubs, rookies and back-ups. In regards to the extra bye weeks, you could implement one which is compulsory for all teams in week 9, splitting the season in two, and one possibly immediately following the pre-season. This extra practise time should prevent a decline in standards that could be observed with a reduced pre-season schedule. I think this is potentially doable, would keep players fresh, limit fatigue (hence potential to sustain injuries period) whilst keeping the standard of football high.

Reduction of Overall Protective Equipment:

OK now you think I am crazy right? Removing protective equipment to reduce the number of concussions seen. This is no oxymoron. Ironically I believe that removing the plastic shoulder pads and helmets could prevent concussions and potentially more injuries. I will present two cases to back my case:

History of the NFL:

It was only 1943 when it became compulsary to wear a helmet in the NFL, co-incidentally shortly following the invention of the plastic helmet by a Mr Riddell & Son. However previous to this, many players played full and long careers without the aid of a helmet. Google Dick Plasman and you will notice not only does he play without a helmet, but his shoulder pads are significantly smaller than those seen today. Watch an old highlight reel of early football, and you see that there is more form tackling, and less highlight reel hitting. Why is this? Simply due to having less protection. Unlike today where technique has taken a back seat compared to hitting power, the old school football stars had to develop a good technique. It is seen in similar sports (ie Rugby, Aussie rules) that poor technique can injure the tackler, however a good technique can still result in big hits.

Comparison to Rugby:

In Rugby Union there are no pads allowed other than foam shoulder pads and head guards. However it hasn't stopped hits like this from George North (1:25-1:35), Jerome Kaino (on the 262lbs Bradley Davies), Tuilagi or Favaro (somewhat reminds me of the Sheldon Brown hit on Reggie Bush). Hence there is proof that reducing the level overall protection does not remove the intensity of the collisions from the game, but simply means that defensive players have to refine the art of tackling. I know some might argue that tackling is different in the two sports, but having played both myself, I say there is not much difference.

Conclusion:

I believe that the current measured in place to deal with the causes of concussions and their prevention are inadequate, and at the very least need to be built around without causing a reduction in the quality of the game. I believe that modifying current equipment and/or removing the total amount could reduce both the severity and the overall number of concussions sustained by players in addition to a reduction of the pre-season schedule to facilitate an extra bye week.

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