The NFL revealed exhaustive results of a concussion study spanning two seasons during a presentation Thursday, compiled with an eye toward converting the biomechanical information into innovative products to protect players from the kinds of devastating head injuries that threaten the future of football. Now, the question becomes how to convert the data into results.
The study, part of the NFL’s Play Smart. Play Safe. initiative, consisted of a video review of the 459 known concussions that occurred over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, from preseason games through the playoffs. The team, led by Jeff Crandall, director of the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia and chairman of the NFL engineering committee, looked at each hit from multiple video sources, examining each from the perspective of the players’ positions, the type of play resulting in the collisions, where on the helmets the hits occurred and with what (another helmet, the ground, a body part) contact was made, as well as whether the head absorbed a linear or rotational hit.
Of the 459 concussions, researchers were able to identify the play on which 383 of them were inflicted. Of those, 325 were identified by the “primary exposure,” the most severe impact during a play.
The group found that 45 percent of the concussions occurred on helmet-to-body hits, with 35 percent coming on helmet-to-helmet hits, something Crandall said represents a decrease from past studies.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, this was probably double,” he said. “We can attribute some of this reduction to the rules changes implemented in the recent past.”
Nineteen percent of the concussions occurred on helmet-to-ground collisions, and Crandall pointed out that it would be important to consider “what turf countermeasures can be taken to reduce [the] severity of this kind of impact.”
Not surprisingly, the largest number of concussions — 41 percent — occurred while a player was making a tackle, with 22 percent coming while a player was being tackled. More than 50 percent of concussions overall involved the side of the helmet, an important consideration as designers continue to look at improving helmets.
As far as positions go, cornerbacks were the most likely to suffer concussions, followed by wide receivers, linebackers and offensive linemen. Forty-four percent of concussions occurred during a passing play, while 30 percent came on a running play. Twenty-one percent came on a punt or kickoff. In instances in which a concussion was suffered when the helmet hit the ground, 35 percent of the time the impact was to the back of the helmet, something that Crandall pointed out could be important to manufacturers, especially when making helmets used by quarterbacks.
The data is being shared widely with helmet manufacturers, designers, innovators, entrepreneurs, universities and others to stimulate new ideas and designs for protective equipment. The goal, as Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president of health and safety policy, said Thursday, was to take “tools used in other industries to take a look at equipment used in football” with the “eventual goal of better protective equipment.” After a review by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, the league says the information will be available to independent medical experts, teams, players, coaches and the NFL Competition Committee, which considers rules changes.
Thursday’s announcement came after the release last month by the NFL of its 2017 Health and Safety Report on the Play Smart. Play Safe. initiative launched in 2016. In announcing that report, the NFL said in a statement: “Of the $100 million Play Smart. Play Safe. commitment, the League pledged $60 million to the Engineering Roadmap — an effort to improve the understanding of the biomechanics of head injuries in professional football and to create incentives for small businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and helmet manufacturers to develop new protective equipment — with $40 million of the total funding commitment allocated for medical research, primarily dedicated to neuroscience.”
Of course, there’s a human component, too, as awareness spreads of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative nerve disease found in athletes, military personnel and others who have a history of repetitive hits to the head. It presently can be detected only at autopsy, and the suicide of a number of well-known former athletes who have struggled with cognitive and emotional decline, some later diagnosed with CTE, has served as a wake-up call to many present NFL players. On the same day the NFL released its findings, a Boston University study showed Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots player who committed suicide in April while serving a life sentence for murder, had the most severe case of CTE ever found in a 27-year-old.
There have been signs over the past couple of years that players, enlightened about the dangers that can ensue from concussions, are taking themselves out of games.
In a pivotal stretch in December 2015, a woozy Case Keenum, then with the St. Louis Rams, remained in a game, triggering a reminder to all teams to follow the official concussion protocol or face punishment. It also prompted one of the toughest quarterbacks in the league to take himself out of a game. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, whose history shows a gutsy willingness to play through pain, stayed in the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit and played nine more snaps, then took himself out of the game. He headed to the locker room for evaluation and entered the NFL’s protocol.
Although Roethlisberger played a bit longer, he later made a surprising admission.
“I was on the sideline thinking, ‘Do I want to go back into this game?’ I was thinking of my family, my lifestyle when I get done with football, with all these injuries. … The brain is nothing to mess with,” he said.. “I was literally on the sideline, probably for the first time maybe in my life, thinking about my family and not going back into the game because I did not feel quite right. It was definitely a moment; that’s why I was honest with the trainers and doctors and wanted to tell them exactly what I was going through. I feel like I made the right [decision].
“People know me, I’ll play through any injury. I’ve played through a lot of injuries. But the brain is not an injury that you want to play with and play through. I think more people need to understand that. We play football for such a short period of time in our lives. When you’re done, you want to be a father and a husband and be the best I can be. If I have these brain injuries, it’s not worth it.”
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