There is little question that football is a dangerous sport. Today’s football players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. They hit each other with unbelievable force.
The NFL clearly recognizes that injuries can and do occur, so it’s worth noting some of the steps the league has taken to improve the safety of its players.
Rules changes to protect NFL players
The NFL has adopted a number of rule changes in recent years. Targeting defenseless players, using the helmet to tackle an opponent and contacting an opponent’s head or neck are all points of emphasis with officials. Plus, athletic trainer “spotters” in the press box now have the ability to call a medical timeout. If a concussion spotter sees a player who appears to be concussed, he can communicate with the medical staff on the sidelines or with the referee to pull the player out of the game for evaluation.
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NFL concussion data appears promising
The league points out that these efforts might be working to decrease injuries. According to the 2015 NFL Health and Safety Report, concussions occurring in regular season games have dropped 35% since 2012. Concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits decreased 43%. Hits to defenseless players are down 68% since 2013.
Doctors and other healthcare providers at NFL games
When injuries do occur, there are more medical professionals on site than ever to assist the athlete. In fact, you might be surprised just how many doctors and other health professionals are there. 27 healthcare providers are present at every NFL game. Each team has two orthopedic surgeons, two primary care physicians, four athletic trainers, one chiropractor and one neurologist or neurosurgeon unaffiliated with the team. In addition, the independent athletic trainer in the booth, a dentist, an ophthalmologist, an anesthesiologist, an x-ray tech and two EMTs or paramedics can assist injured players as needed.
Turn to technology to improve safety
The NFL has also sought to find better technology. Working with GE and Under Armour, the league recently held its second “Head Health Challenge,” awarding financial incentives to companies with innovative ideas to protect athletes from head injuries. This year, the NFL awarded prized for three winning ideas. One idea involved an under-layer beneath synthetic turf to cushion the blows when players hit the
ground. The University of Washington designed a helmet with many layers to better absorb impacts. Finally, the Army Research Laboratory developed a tether that connects the head to the torso to try to prevent the head from snapping back suddenly after a football tackle.
NFL’s Chief Health and Medical Advisor
In February 2015, the NFL appointed Dr. Betsy Nabel to serve as its first Chief Health and Medical Advisor. Dr. Nabel is a cardiologist, professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is working with the league’s various medical committees and research organizations to bring the latest advances to their player safety efforts.
Youth football safety efforts
All of these steps focus on NFL players, but attention has been directed at youth football as well. The NFL’s efforts in this regard include Heads Up Football, which promotes what could be safer tackling techniques. The NFL also publicly supported the Lystedt Law. This law, which requires an athlete suspected of suffering a concussion to be removed from competition and mandates that he receives clearance by a healthcare professional trained in the evaluation and management of concussions, has been passed in all 50 states.
These all seem to be worthy efforts. The NFL will no doubt look to take more steps when possible to further decrease injuries. Time and much more research will determine if these moves will be enough to protect athletes during their playing days and later in life.
Do you think that some of these steps the NFL has taken in recent years to improve player safety will make a real difference? Please share your thoughts below!
Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the February 5, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.