Welcome to the final part of our look into head injuries in the NFL. So far I have covered in Parts 1 and 2 (go read if you haven’t) some very important people, the controversy around the head injury denials and what not. I covered some of the history of helmet design, some of the latest designs and some other gizmos and gadgets used with the intention of helping stem the flow of head injuries. Our last stop on this journey will be a look at some of the rule changes over the past few years to try and limit head injuries (SPOILER: They haven’t), the oh so divisive topic of the Conclusion Protocol/Head Injury Evaluation/Blue Tent Roulette and my own opinions on everything we covered. But first, to finish up with our Technology Spot form Part 2, my thoughts on the companies supplying the equipment. So pack it up, pack it in, let me begin!
~ Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy ~
One of the big things about the advancement of such things like football helmets that needs to be noted is that first and foremost it is all about making money while player’s health and wellbeing is second. CEOs and corporations really do not give two thoughts about the user except about how much money that person can generate for the company. The company that can be the first to put their hand up and say we have the Holy Grail for helmets and be certified Concussion Proof (even though that is something we’ll possibly never see), will be the sole company left making helmets. This is simply down to the fact that the design, materials, construction, manufacturing process and whatever else they can will be wrapped up in patents, trademarks, copyrights and red tape so they can bleed it for everything it is worth.
I’m not saying that companies should be working for free. I’m not saying their discovery should be like the polio vaccine and pretty much done for the good of the world and nothing else but if companies would work better together, we could be a lot further down the road than we currently are when it comes to finding the breakthrough. Take for instance the VICIS ZERO1 helmet we talked about before. This revolution in helmet design is still new on the block and some are skeptical of the tech involved with it but the lab testing has proved this concept is at least an improvement in the right direction and some players are using it for this reason. Logic would dictate that if something is working better that what came before, it should be the new standard but companies are so afraid of lawsuits for “copying” elements or not being “The One” who discovers the breakthrough in the ultimate helmet design, these advancements are slowed to a halt. Other companies are working on something similar, you can be assured of that, but until they find what they are looking for, minor changes will be made to what they currently have in order to play some sort of lip service to “improvements in player’s welfare”.
Take Schutt’s latest F7 helmet. The have taken what looks on paper to be a similar helmet to the Vengeance that they sell, cut a few squares out of it and fitted what they are calling the “Tectonic Plate 3DM system”. The plate system seems to me to be their attempt to do what Riddell done with their SpeedFlex, which is to build some give and flex in the outer hard shell of the helmet. This then allows the energy from an impact to be sent to the energy absorbing soft bit inside the helmet and dissipate the force before it reaches the human. Hopefully this gives enough time for the brain to slosh around in the fluid inside the skull without bouncing off the sides of the cranial cavity, which results in the lovely “I don’t know where the f**k I am” feeling we all know as a concussion.
To me and my admittedly untrained eye, the F7 and SpeedFlex are safety theater. They don’t really fix the issue like they claim they do but if you keep redesigning and give the impression you are making something “better”, people will naturally think you are making it better even though it’s not necessarily that different to what has gone before. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The only time the status quo is truly breached is when a company comes along and shows the slight improvements can be usurped by radically challenging what was thought to be the standard of excellence. If Riddell or any large company really cared about player safety, they would either buyout VICIS or licence the technology VICIS use, then go on as the biggest and best manufacturer of helmets to improve the technology with investment all the while providing the best of what is currently available. Instead what has more than likely happened is a group of engineers got their hands on a ZERO1 and have spent a stupid amount of time and money finding out its little secretes like some sort of Riddell version of Rethrick Construction. They will come up with a new way to make it along with a group of patent lawyers on hand to make sure nothing is being infringed upon so VICIS can’t sue Riddell back to the stone age the same way Riddell has done to pretty much all its competition over the years. Riddell will then launch their version of what has already been done by a smaller company many years previous but their version is slightly cheaper. Screw the fact that you could have been helping avoid life altering injuries years earlier.
I’m not just taking a swing here at Riddell alone here, it’s a swing at all safety equipment makers (the NFL will get their swing later too). They all could make a bundle of money and help players at all levels if they just stopped the in-fighting. Share the research. Respect the results of testing and medical reports. Then improve accordingly. The cream will rise to the top always. When the game is viewed as safer, there will be more players again and more people to buy your stuff. Instead there is this short term thing of sue, sue, sue until the last man is standing and we’ll eventually get around to trying to keep players’ brains from being turned to goo. I could be wrong here and be singing the virtues of a product that in in the future turns out caused more damage but at least they tried. They used the best materials, the latest data they could get and really made an attempt to make the best and safest helmets. The problems in players’ health we have seen over the last fifteen years will not go away if these companies who are trusted with keeping players safe are not willing to use the best testing, techniques and equipment to fulfill than roll.
If Riddell or Schutt or whoever comes out with the concussion proof helmet, I will hold my hands up and say I got it wrong but from all the reading and information I could find, the only thing that matters to most equipment companies the price tag that hangs from their products and not the head it sits on at gametime.
~ Motor Neuron Disease ~
This part will be as much in layman’s terms as possible but forgive me if it’s not perfect. Here is a look at a few of the rule changes in regards to blows to the head over the last few years. The site I will use for most of the information is going to be the NFL’s “Play Smart, Play Safe” page and the NFL Operations website. According to the “Play Smart, Play Safe” guilde, there has be 47 changes to the rules which deal with reducing risk of injuries to players since 2002. Here’s a link to all 47 if you are so inclined to have a gander:
But I am truly only interested in those that address concerns about the head area so all other bits and bobs are being left out on purpose. In 2002, helmet to helmet hits on a QB if he was defending a change of possession situation was outlawed. In order words, you couldn’t headbutt a QB who was trying to make a tackle after throwing a pick or if one of his teammates just coughed up the ball. In 2005, it was the turn of kickers and punters to have helmet to helmets against them banned during the kick and return. Who says they’re not real players? They get as much protection as QBs!
In 2009, blows to the head and neck area of defenseless receiver by a defender’s helmet, forearm or shoulder bit the bullet. Also blindside blocks (from the side or behind a player) and shots to the head and neck area of a defence player by an offence player’s helmet, forearm or shoulder if the offence player is facing his own end zone became a Neddy No No. Simply put, if you whiffed at stopping at an opponent, who is now running towards and about to kill your QB, you couldn’t run after him and WWE clothesline him in the back of the head anymore, no! You had to run in front of him and lay out that fool!
2010 onwards is when the crack down on laying out players really kicks in. A raft of rules were brought in to crack down on headshots. The 2002 and 2005 rule changes where expanded to no blows allowed to the head by an opponent’s helmet, forearm or shoulder, instead of just helmet to helmet contact for QBs, Kickers and Punters. All defenseless players could not be hit in the head by an opponent’s helmet, forearm or shoulder. If you had just made a catch you were no longer allowed be hit in the head or neck by a player lunging at you. 2011 messed about with kick off to encourage touchbacks and less running down of the kicks. The next two are a bit long winded but I can’t think of a better way to put them so here they are in all their glory:
“The list of “defenseless players” is expanded to include: a kicker/punter during the kick or during the return; a quarterback at any time after a change of possession; and a player who receives a “blindside” block when the blocker is moving toward his own endline and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side. Previously, these players were protected against blows to the head, but not against blows delivered by an opponent with the top/crown or forehead/“hairline” parts of the helmet against other parts of the body.”
“A receiver who has completed a catch is a “defenseless player” until he has had time to protect himself or has clearly become a runner. A receiver/runner is no longer defenseless if he is able to avoid or ward off the impending contact of an opponent. Previously, the receiver who had completed a catch was protected against an opponent who launched and delivered a blow to the receiver’s head.”
Over the next few years, the rules just become more and more detailed on what was pretty much in the rules at the time. 2012 saw defenseless players list expanded to include defensive players on crackback blocks, making it illegal to hit them in the head or neck area. 2013 saw long snappers added also to the list of defenseless players. Runners and tacklers were now banned from using the crown of the helmet to make contact with an opponent. 2015 welcomed intended receivers to the Defenceless Players Club in the immediate aftermath of an interception being caught by the defence. The last rule changes for now was the moving of the of the snap after a touchback from 20 to 25 yards was brought on board in 2016 and extended in 2017.
We also have the rule not listed on that page but i have come across, players cannot wear tinted visors only smoked visors on helmets unless they have medical reason to. As far as I know, Alex Collins of The Ravens is the only player who is allowed to use a tinted visor for a migraine issue he has with bright light which in itself should be a warning to the guy! The reason for this is if you have your bell rung, medical staff can look you in the eyes to see if they are rolling to the back of your head without removing the helmet. I think Schutt also have a mounting system for facemasks on all their new helmets which allows it to be removed without taking the helmet off for the same reason
~ Alzheimer’s Disease ~
So what does the NFL say if, even after all these wonderful rules have been put in, you get lit up like a Christmas tree? This is where the NFL Game Day Concussion Diagnosis and Management Protocol comes into play. It’s been around since 2011 but it gets reviewed every year so I will use what was in play for the 2017 season. I will once again link to the full thing here because for the sake of time, I won’t be going into things like “what’s a concussion” and all the medical jargon they use.
It all starts in preseason with education and assessment of players. Players and staff are given information about what is a concussion, what to do if you have one ect. Assessments are done in two parts. The physical side is a player sitting with a team doctor asking about previous head injuries, signs and symptoms and all that wonderful stuff. Part two is a Neuropsychological testing which the NFL call the “NFL Locker Room Comprehensive Concussion Assessment”. This gives the doctors a baseline score for the season. This test is then used again if someone is suspected of having a concussion but I will go into that a bit more in a bit.
On game day, there is a few people who can make the call to have a player checked out. A team doctor, trainer, coach, NFL official even a teammate can make a player get checked if someone has received a blow to the head or a player shows signs of concussion. Two other very important groups that have a more hands on roll are the ATC Booth Spotters and the UNCs. Booth Spotter basically watch the game and replays from a TV feed for blows to the head or players showing signs of concussions. They will inform the refs, teams and the UNC or Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant about the injury they see and the whole business kicks off. Once again, I’m not going into a tonne of detail for the sake of time but if you are interest, check out the link.
The big deal now is the tent and why some teams got stung for flaunting the rules in relation to it. Before last season, the sideline review of injuries was done on the team bench. The tent was brought in to give players a bit of privacy to talk to doctors and get assessed without the cameras on them. For concussions, if you hit the blue, there’s quite a bit that has to happen inside. First off, you need to clear the first stage which is the “No-Go” criteria. If you lose consciousness, are confused or have a touch of Amnesia, you’re done for the day, no arguing, you’re gone. This is where Cam Newton brought the world unto himself against The Saints when he fell over/took a knee while running to the sideline after taking a big hit. An investigation said that he never complained of a concussion or any symptoms but he was poked in the eye by his visor and a knee injury from earlier in the game made it hard for him to kneel down like a normal person while the trainer ran on to check him out hence why he when down like a sack of shit.
When you clear level one, we go to the tent and remove the helmet. You then get asked to recall the incident and if you have any symptoms of a concussion. You are asked the Maddocks questions (What venue are we today? Which half is it now? Who scored last in this match? Who did you play last week? Did your team win the last game?), watch a video replay of the event and finally, a Focused Neurological Exam (cervical spine examination (including range of motion and pain), evaluation of speech, a check on how you are walking and the like, eye movement and a pupillary exam. This is where Russell Wilson and the Seahawks got in trouble. Once you get flagged by anyone one of the people who can send you for a concussion check (in his case, a ref), you have to go through all of this to pass protocol, which he didn’t do. He sat in the tent, but bolted before they even closed it. He was then sent back again where he was fully checked out and he didn’t have a concussion.
If you fail any of these tests or the doctors are unsure, you go to the locker room. Here is where the NFL Locker Room Comprehensive Concussion Assessment comes into play. You redo this test, the same as your pre-season one. These test are designed to give you a score compared to Joe Average. If you pre-season score and your score when you are in this situation in the locker room are too far apart, you’re shut down.
The protocol does go into detail as to what has to be done after a player has been diagnosed, how he has to train and be evaluated but its heavy in detail so have a look at the Play Smart, Play Safe website and you can get all the detail you like but I will leave my coverage of it here as I don’t have an issue with the aftercare, all my issues are to do with gameday.
The big thing that eats me up is that team doctors has final say on weather a player can go back out or not, with the exception of the No-Go stuff. Why oh why would you go through the business of bringing in independent evaluators when people, with vested interests in the team can tell them to shove their opinion up their ass? What is worse again is when they league had an opportunity to show how serious they were going to take this, The Seahawks got a minor slap on the wrist for it, a $100,000 fine for a team that is part of a multi-billion dollar industry! Tom Savage got hit so hard by Elvis Dumervil he was left stiff and shaking like a vibrator on a bedroom floor but was allowed to return to the game before someone copped on and he was pulled for failing a second concussion test. The Texans didn’t even get the slap! The NFL and Players Association both blamed the video shown to the medical staff wasn’t the one where Savage was doing his best sex aid impression because Reuben Foster was down injured also.
If the NFL was serious about this issue they would have dropped the hammer on both of these teams for their actions. A couple of million in fines and multi-game suspension for players and staff that flout the rules would really put off anyone willing to try and flex them. The independent assessors should be the guys to make the big calls since they have, theoretically, no comeback from teams, only the league and then only if they get it wrong, which forces everyone to proceed with extra caution. The guys pulling the trigger on a player’s health should not have to be fearing the sack if he makes what his boss thinks was the wrong decision. Imagine you are a team doctor to Tom Brady and he is just about passing the tests but the independent guy says he isn’t sure. There is only one minute on the clock and your team is three points down, are you going to be the guy to the Bill Belichick you’re pulling his QB?
Like I said in relation to helmet companies, it’s all safety theater. It is to show you are “improving” safety and welfare for players without changing a whole lot because that would imply that there is an issue that needs addressing and if we keep tinkering and ironing out the bumps in the protocol, everyone will think we’re fixing the issue. The truth is, it’s not. Third party people are there to be the scapegoats in all of this. Oh the spotter missed Savage having a fit, not our fault. The independent guy checked him out and said he was fine (even though team doctors have final say), not our fault. He passed the test, not our fault. It’s easier to say all of that then actually fix what needs fixing.
~ Dementia ~
The concussion proof helmet does exist. The problem is, it’s about 15 inches of foam which will break your neck in a tackle due to the weight. You could attach it to the shoulder pads and have some weird hybrid between a Kendo hood and the frame used by the weird Bartender with the broken neck in Fight Club but that then makes you top heavy so now your hips, knees and ankles are overloaded. So now we wind up with 11 vs 11 Michelin Men bouncing around the field and the game is ruined. Is the solution less equipment? Possibly. Limit the amount of impact a player can inflict by allowing him to feel some of it himself but even that won’t work because even the safest rugby style wrap tackle in the open field can still result in someone’s head bouncing into the ground. Equipment will never fix this issue unless major technological advancements are made. Technique and coaching may help limit but it won’t stop serious head injuries. Even rule change that keeps football like football in a way that we recognize it as football won’t stop them either.
The thing we need to accept as fans or even players of this sport is that it is a violent game. To eliminate violence in gridiron would be like eliminate violence in boxing. We can wear the head guards, gum shields, whatever we like to try and limit injuries sustained directly from the sport but we need to accept that they will happen and we must expect them. To try and remove serious injury from boxing, you would have to stop boxing altogether and I feel gridiron is the same. If we take out the big hits, is it the same game? Do we change how the linemen engage on each other the limit the chances of them getting a knock to the head? Do we bring in wrap tackling like rugby and stop shoulder charging and barging?
Players are big boys too. If you take someone just drafted this year and he has been playing since he was at least in his early teens, he would have ten or so years playing the game. If he makes the decision, after being presented with all the “this could happen to you if you keep playing” info and feels he wants to risk it, like anyone who wants to be a pro in boxing, MMA, wrestling, stuntman, rally driver, whatever, fine! You are an adult. It shouldn’t be up to other people to say you can’t do something because you may hurt yourself unless we are in a situation that people were being killed in game regularly (which is why we have the forward pass, FYI). As adults we can, drink, smoke, inject and ingest stuff that can have serious effects on our health but it is our choice to put ourselves at that risk either from the law or Mother Nature. Our very smart friend, Dr. Bennet Omalu, gave an interview here in Ireland and he had a wonderful line:
“When you are an adult, when you reach the age of eighteen, you are free to do whatever you want to do and I will be one of the first to stand by you and defend your right to engage in Skydiving, place a gun to you head and shoot yourself if you want, that is your right…”
And I agree fully with him. I do think teen and peewee leagues in all sports to have a massive responsibility to protect the younger, still growing kids but especially in contact sports. I think that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for sports like gridiron or rugby to have touch/tag rules only until eighteen. Teach tackling with dummies (tackling dummies, not the stupid players on the team) and build up the proper technique from sixteen but no full contact matches until eighteen. Get the leagues to kick more into the pot to help players in there post career medical and care costs. This way, an actual attempt is being made to limit damage to kids which, over time, offsets the damage seen in later life and help the guys who’s health problems were the catalyst for change.
The NFL is lying to itself if it thinks that it can fix this without fundamentally changing the game. Like everything to do with the NFL, money will dictate where and when the changes will happen. The likelihood is we will either have to accept the possibility of seeing our heroes left as shells of themselves or we will have to live in a world where football isn’t football and while both are not the nicest of scenarios, I don’t know which scares me more.