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A Dangerous Game: How can football adapt to promote safety?

POSTED: July 28, 2012 7:07 p.m.

Jacob Allen has been working hard to rid himself of a bad habit.

The Flowery Branch High rising senior and Division-I football prospect is focused on getting his head out of the way as he prepares for his final high school season and his expected collegiate career beyond.

“I know college is a lot more intense, more strict on rules that are not noticed as much in high school,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a lot to get used to. I’ve had to train myself to get out of those bad habits.”

The habit?

Leading with the helmet on tackles, something that helmet manufacturers, doctors and coaches agree is one of the leading causes concussions in the sport.

“I think the biggest thing with concussions comes from teaching and requiring your players to do it the right way,” said Georgia Military College coach Bert Williams, who has had numerous players come into his program without knowing the proper tackling techniques. “Where we have the problems, in my opinion, is in the recreation leagues and in the middle schools and junior high. What level of coaching are they getting? What level of instruction in the basic fundamentals of tackling, not using the helmet as a weapon and things of that nature? Some do it very well, but how consistent is it?”

Allen explained why coaches like Williams have had to retrain players on how to tackle properly, with the head up while using the shoulder and arms.

“You think lowering your head and putting it in somebody’s chest is more effective,” he said. “It’s just second nature. Your helmet is the heaviest piece of equipment on your body, so you want to lead with that.

“And I’ve done that and gotten concussions. The new rules will help with concussions and prevent injury.”

While leagues at various levels of football have tweaked their rule books to lessen head injuries, experts contend that the education comes first. Then the advancements in helmets and equipment can be even more effective.

“Whenever we think about prevention, our first instinct is equipment,” said Daryl Rosenbaum, director of primary care sports medicine at Wake Forest University. “Adjust the rules and enforce them, and work on player technique. Changing player behavior is one of best ways, and then teaching proper technique: Instead of head down, see what you’re hitting and use the shoulder.

“Right now, when we give them better equipment they feel more invincible.”

A deadly past

There have been rumblings in recent years of football reaching a crisis point due to a better understanding of the lingering effects of head trauma sustained by players in all levels of the sport.

But football has been much closer to the precipice in the past.

In 1906, the U.S. government might have banned the game, which had claimed 18 lives in 1905, but for the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt.

“The debate today is remarkably similar to what football was going through a century ago,” said Jon Miller, author of “How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.” “Football has been here before. But back then we were debating fatalities instead of concussions.”

The solution?

The game legalized the forward pass.

“When it was introduced, it made football distinctly American, and it helped the sport deal with the problem of violence, because it changed the nature of the game, opened up the field in certain ways,” Miller said. “Football has never been afraid to change, where baseball is traditional to a fault. Football’s never been afraid to innovate, and it’ll continue to innovate now.”

Michael Oriard, a professor at the University of Oregon who played professional football in the early 70s, has seen many of the changes, from new helmets to concussion awareness. And he has seen the effects of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease in individuals with a history of multiple concussions. He said a former teammate of his committed suicide years before.

“Players are bigger, faster, stronger, but also, the equipment, particularly helmets, are much more advanced,” he said. “It creates an illusion of invincibility, so it becomes a weapon.

“That the helmet is a weapon creates the illusion of your own invulnerability, which is a really dangerous thing. The head is definitely much more in the game than when I played.”

Oriard added that, by policing helmet hits and restricting hitting at the youth levels, the game is on the right track. But he said more needs to be done, even with football innate physical nature.

“The violence has been a part of the game from the beginning. It’s an important part of the appeal of the game, the validation of toughness and manhood,” he said. “The roughness of the game has been fundamental to the appeal, but nobody’s ever wanted it to be so dangerous.

“We’ve got to figure out what the brain impact is on different blows.”

Knowing more about that element could help helmet manufacturers who, despite the difficulties, are continuing to improve their helmets.

Protecting the head

Glenn Beckman, spokesman for helmet manufacturer Schutt, praised the success of the football helmet in general, but also recognized its limitations.

“Helmets are one of the most successful products for a sports field,” he said. “They were developed to prevent skull fractures, and when’s the last time you heard of that happening?

“Helmets are really not the best way to stop concussions.”

The problem is clear: While helmets are adept at stopping a skull fracture or facial injuries common in the early years of the game, the force of a hit can still jar the brain inside the skull, not unlike the effect of scrambling an egg without cracking the shell.

Steve Rowson, professor at Virginia Tech University’s school of Biomedical Engineering & Sciences, agrees that helmets cannot be the main solution for concussions.

But new technology can help.

“In a year, helmet technology can improve a lot, with thicker padding, more advanced materials, better geometry,” said Rowson, who helped develop the Virginia Tech STAR helmet rating system. “There’s already been a big improvement to previous helmets. It seems like helmet designs have constantly improved, from leather helmets, to plastic helmets, to harder plastic. Then NOCSAE (the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) came in, and you had padded helmets.

“(New helmets) have more advanced materials, because there is a limit to how big and heavy a helmet can get.”

Rowson explained that the best helmets do a better job of reducing the acceleration of the head after a hit.

“Lowering head acceleration will result in a less severe response within the game, and lessen the probability of a concussion.”

Beckman, however, argues that there isn’t much a helmet can affect, regardless of the rating or cost.

Which is why, affixed on every Schutt helmet, is a warning message:

“No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.”

Rowson agreed that there’s no way to eliminate the risks, which is why the focus, first and foremost, needs to be on teaching in order to make the game safer in the future.

“Head protection’s just one piece of the equation in reducing concussions in sports,” Rowson said. “You’re going to see rule changes, new practice schedules. Between rule changes and helmet design, we can reduce the number and severity of concussions. The helmet is not the be all, end all.”

A glimpse into the future

Atlanta Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud, 28, isn’t worried about ending up battered and broken from too many big hits when his playing days are over.

“I’ve stayed relatively healthy throughout my playing career to this point, so barring anything crazy, I should be able to play with my kids when I’m 40, 45,” he said. “But the athletes are getting better and faster every year, so I think five years from now it’ll look different, just athletically.”

Better, faster players are also delivering bigger hits, leading many observers to paint a dim picture of what the sport could become in the future.

Rosenbaum doesn’t believe the most popular sport in America, the NFL, will see a decline anytime soon. But he sees a different reality in the doctor’s office.

“If the game doesn’t adapt some it may be risking its very future,” he said. “ I see a lot of parents who have a much lower threshold.”

He added that many times, when faced with the prospect of telling a young athlete that he or she should stop playing rather than risk another, potentially debilitating, concussion, many parents beat him to the punch in telling their kids to hang it up.

“I can definitely see a decline in participation rates, but, as in decline as a spectator sport, I think that’s going to be a long time until that happens,” said Rosenbaum, who added that the rule changes to make the game safer have helped. “Pop Warner has limited contact in practices, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, we see that at higher levels.

“In the end, if you have to choose between changing a game some and safety, yes, you may have to change a little bit for safety.”

On the field, Allen still feels he can do his job effectively despite having to adjust his style some as the rules for defensive players have tightened. In fact, he sees it as something of a challenge.

“It gives us more of a point to prove how much more physical defense has to be to get the job done,” he said. “There’s the stigma of defensive players not being as smart, but this proves that defense has a lot of rules to follow.

“It’s a way to show off how good you are on the field.”

And like DeCoud, Allen doesn’t intend to sacrifice his future in order to revert to the old ways.

“As long as I get to be physical and aggressive, then I’m fine with (the new rules),” Allen said. “I want to be able to do my best and hit people, as long as I can stay safe. I don’t want to have problems when I’m older.”


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