Football helmet next to football on the field

Can Playing ‘Smarter’ Football Reduce Traumatic Brain Injuries?

Since the beginning stages of the NFL’s concussion crisis, we have been hearing about how the league has been working to make football safer by making it ‘smarter.’ The thrust behind smarter football program is simple: to reduce traumatic brain injuries. But what exactly does it mean to play smarter football? Can smarter football really reduce traumatic brain injuries?

The Helmet Industry and Heads Up Campaign Work to Reduce Traumatic Brain Injuries

Riddell Sports Group, Inc. is the largest football helmet manufacturer in the world. Like other manufacturers, Riddell has advertised its line of football helmets by featuring new technological breakthroughs in the field of preventing head injuries. Riddell has also aligned itself with universities like Virginia Tech, competing in studies run by physics departments to showcase the company’s push for improving helmet technology.

This month, the company announced a campaign called the Smarter Football Campaign, aimed at recognizing and rewarding teams around the country who demonstrate progressive playing habits and approaches to the game of football. The campaign will award $100,000 for football equipment to teams that “best articulate how an equipment grant strengthens their ability to implement a safer, smarter game on the field.”

USA Football, which is the governing body for the sport (created by the NFL), has put forth the Heads Up Football campaign as another approach to reducing traumatic brain injuries. The Heads Up campaign is dedicated to educating players, coaches, and referees on best practices when it comes to tackling; specifically teaching players to keep their heads up when they tackle.

While both attempts at making football safer are commendable, there is an important implication in the idea that smarter football will reduce traumatic brain injury. The helmet manufacturers blame the concussion crisis on technology, holding tight to the notion that breaking new ground in science and technology will be essential to the reduction of concussions, while USA Football and the Heads Up campaign place blame on the poor tackling form. Both of these assertions divert attention from the truth: no matter how football is played—smarter or otherwise—traumatic brain injuries are an inevitability.

The History of Smarter Football

The drive for making the game smarter is nothing new, according to the Guardian. Programs similar to the Heads Up campaign date back to latter part of the 1800s. ‘Butting,’ which is now commonly referred to as ‘spearing,’ caused an epidemic of head injuries in the 1880s (spearing is when a player hits another player using the crown of his head as a battering ram). In this era, Yale University’s football team had a reputation for an offensive line that headbutted their opponents to clear running lanes for their ball carriers. Remember, this was at a time when helmets were made of leather and the only facial protection was a small nose guard, so it should come as no surprise that head injuries were common among football players. A few coaches of the time advised players to learn to tackle using a dummy, focusing on keeping one’s head to the side in order to avoid head collisions. These teachings would continue into the 20th century.

Despite the best efforts of so many (Teddy Roosevelt’s movement to reform football, revisions to the football rulebook, and the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Administration, just to name a few), football head injuries and concussions continued to occur in high numbers. A 1930s study looking into the cause of football injuries concluded that nearly 30 percent of injuries could be avoided by “closer attention to playing fields, coaching, and players’ conditions.” The media covering the study focused on other smaller causes of injuries, like poor leadership and coaching. What did the study find as the major cause of all football injuries? The game itself.

In the 1940s, many thought the advent of the plastic football helmet would reduce traumatic brain injury. But in 1968, the media reported on 36 high school football players who lost their lives playing the game, and another 30 who were paralyzed. Rules changed, this time to combat spearing, even though a study at the time found that only 28 percent of concussions were caused by spearing.

As football helmets improved in the 1970s, the sport’s nastiest head injury numbers went down. No longer were players sustaining skull fractures or paralysis in such high numbers, they were instead suffering concussions over and over again, the effects of which were largely dealt with in silence as many players and fans were unaware of the long term health consequences. After news of Mike Webster’s death and subsequent chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) diagnosis, the league again made moves in an attempt to improve the safety of the game—they again emphasized anti-spearing rules and created USA Football’s Heads Up Program to teach kids the same tackling concepts outlined more than a century ago.

Which brings us to where we are today.

The concussion issue has created a new industry with more and more technological advancements being made every day. We now have helmets and mouthpieces with high-tech sensors to detect concussions, and robots are patrolling the sidelines of football fields looking for potentially concussed players.

What do these products have in common? They all promise that their products are helping to improve the safety of the game, which is a good thing. But as we’ve seen, this is a promise they can’t possibly keep—teaching players how to tackle isn’t going to stop concussions any more than a high-tech helmet will.

Smarter football won’t reduce traumatic brain injuries. The only sure way to do that is to not play.

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