There is no question that football is a dangerous sport. The athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, and they hit each other with tremendous force.
I have addressed the numerous long-term health risks of football, including brain damage, but it’s worth noting some of the steps the NFL has taken to improve the safety of its players.
The league has adopted a number of rule changes in recent years. Most notably, targeting defenseless players, contacting an opponent’s head or neck or using the helmet to tackle an opponent are all points of emphasis with officials. Also, athletic trainer “spotters” in the press box can call a medical timeout. If they see a player who appears to be concussed, they can communicate with the medical staffs on the sidelines or the referee to pull out the player for evaluation.
The league points out that these efforts might be working. According to the 2015 NFL Health and Safety Report, concussions occurring in regular-season games have dropped 35 percent since 2012. Concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits decreased 43 percent. Hits to defenseless players are down 68 percent since 2013.
When injuries do occur, there are more medical professionals on site than ever to assist the athlete — 27 healthcare providers are present at NFL games. 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, a radiology tech to take x-rays and two paramedics can assist injured players as needed.
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.
The NFL has also sought to find better technology. Working with GE and Under Armour, the league held a “Head Health Challenge,” awarding financial incentives to companies with innovative ideas to protect athletes from head injuries. This year, the three winning ideas included an under-layer beneath synthetic turf to cushion the blows when players hit the ground, a helmet with many layers to better absorb impacts and a tether connecting the head to the torso to try to prevent the head from snapping back suddenly after a football tackle.
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, and advocacy of 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.
In a recent column, I urged parents to question whether they should have their children tested genetically to evaluate their future athletic potential. I mentioned the slogan of a company only to show what those tests claim to be able to do. In no way did I intend to imply that a specific company, DNAFit, targeted its tests toward parents or children, and DNAFit insists that it does not do so. I regret any confusion the column might have caused.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon in Charleston. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to drdavidgeier.com.