Concussions a massive priority for NFL

I was a guest on Talk Sport Radio on Tuesday evening, talking with Danny Kelly and Darren Lewis about concussions in sport, with a particular focus on what the NFL is doing in terms of player safety.

As I mentioned on air last night, concussions are not a problem the NFL is looking to sweep under the carpet. I think they are tackling the issue head on and even though athletes in America are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, I truly believe there has never been a better time to play American football at the professional level.

The NFL is moving away from that macho era of two practices per day in which the players beat seven bells out of each other. And although players are prideful athletes who want to be in the thick of the action, they sometimes need protecting from themselves and the NFL has taken steps to do just that.

In speaking with Danny and Darren last night, we looked at what soccer is doing in terms of concussions and we did chat about how Hugo Lloris (last year for Tottenham Hotspur) and Javier Mascherano (for Argentina during the World Cup) went straight back into the game even when it appeared obvious they had suffered concussions.

That has long been a problem in all sports, not just American football. Players want to win so badly and coaches lean on team doctors to get their man back in the game. That can no longer happen in the NFL – if a player suffers a concussion and is showing clear ill effects of the head injury, an independent neurologist on the sidelines has the power to keep him on the bench.

There are a number of areas where I think the NFL has made massive steps in player safety…

Cracking down on hits to defenceless players

The NFL is very serious indeed about making sure players who cannot protect themselves – quarterbacks throwing passes or receivers leaping to make catches – are not knocked into the middle of next week. Some of the more aggressive defenders in the NFL may not be happy with this move, but they are beginning to take note.

The NFL fines a defender $22,050 for a first offence in terms of hitting a defenceless opponent. That figure rises to $44,100 for a second offence and continues to climb. Players have also been suspended for games, meaning they miss a pay cheque for that week, which can be quite a considerable sum of money.

The result? NFL officials called 40 hits on a defenceless receiver penalties in 2012. That figure dropped to just 25 in 2013. It seems the players are getting the message that flagrant hits to the head will not be tolerated by the NFL.

Medical staff in attendance

As I mentioned above, NFL history is littered with tales of tough men who suffered a concussion and went straight back into the game. That simply cannot happen in today’s NFL.

Each gameday sideline in the NFL typically features the following (both teams combined)…

  • 8 athletic trainers
  • 4 orthopaedists
  • 4 primary care phsyicians
  • 2 chiropractors
  • 2 independent neuro-trauma consultants
  • 1 independent trainer
  • 1 opthalmologist
  • 1 dentist
  • 1 radiology technician
  • 1 airway management physician
  • 2 paramedics

The players of the NFL are better cared for than ever before and, importantly, some of the key medical personnel are independent of the team. When a player sits before a doctor for evaluation, they are viewed as patients and people, not as a running back who needs to get back in the game with third down coming up.

Fewer physical practices

NFL teams are now only allowed one padded practice per day during training camp and when they get into the regular season, they are allowed just one session per week in pads.

This is a massive change from the macho NFL world of the 1960s and 1970s when a practice was deemed successful if players were very physical, were denied water and threw up at the end of the session!

Most NFL coaches now take the pads off their players during the second half of the season, ensuring their guys are fresh for the stretch run to the Super Bowl. That can only help in terms of player safety.

Heads up football

Walk into any NFL locker room and you will find a sign reminding players to “see what you hit”. It is a simple reminder but the fact remains that those who tackle with their heads up are less likely to suffer a serious injury than those who lower their head at the point of impact.

This is a message being delivered to more than 900,000 young American football players across the United States as the NFL has teamed up with USA Football to deliver the ‘Heads Up Football’ initiative to youth, high school and college players.

The NFL is doing a great deal – both in terms of education and financial support – at grassroots level in order to make the game safer for everyone and should be commended for that, in my opinion.

It’s working!

The problem of concussions is not going away for the NFL and there are only so many rules that can be changed in the future. But the steps the league have taken appear to be working.

In 2013, a total of 2,870 men played at least one down of football in the NFL either in the preseason or regular season. Of those 2,870, 185 players suffered concussions – that figure is down 13% from 2012 and down 17% from 2011.

So the league is heading in the right direction. They would like to see fewer than one concussion in every 270 plays, of course, but the statistics appear to be positive for now when it comes to players currently playing in the league.

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