By David Croushore
This week, the NFL finally made a reasonable gesture with respect to player safety. However, the crackdown on brutal hits is only a good start in the fight for player safety that must continue.
As Greg Easterbrook of ESPN is quick to point out, the NFL must make efforts to promote the safety of its players, not simply for the players’ sake, but for the sake of the majority of football players, high school and college athletes who will never make a dime from athletics. These young players stand to lose much more in the event of an injury than they can ever gain. Head and neck injuries are particularly dangerous for young athletes, as concussions have been shown to cause more long term harm when sustained before the brain has fully developed.
The NFL’s crackdown on illegal hits last week has already shown positive effects on player conduct, as multiple players this week shied away from unnecessary, brutal contact during games; however, the NFL still refuses to make player safety a serious priority by allowing players to use substandard equipment. Helmet makers have produced multiple helmet models that have been shown to decrease the risk of concussions, but the NFL still allows players to use outdated models. Players opt for these unsafe helmets for a variety of reasons. While awareness of the risk of concussions has increased, many players are still not fully aware of the severity of the risk to which they expose themselves. Safer helmets are larger and less comfortable, and players often opt for the better-looking and more comfortable models, despite the trade off in safety. If the NFL mandated the use of safer helmets, college and high school players would follow suit.
Football, like many sports, remains a valuable way to educate young people about teamwork, discipline, dedication, and perseverance, but the potential risk of serious injury is not a worthwhile trade-off. In 1905, president Theordore Roosevelt convinced early football programs to change the rules of play in order to make football safer, so there is precedent in football for rule changes in the name of safety. As scientific knowledge of the risk of football related injuries has improved, it has become apparent than more change is necessary.
Helmets with a hard outer shell feel like weapons, so it is unsurprising that players wearing these helmets use them as such, turning themselves into missiles and aiming to inflict pain on their opponents. Helmets with a soft outer shell have been used by NFL players Mark Kelso and Steve Wallace, both all pro players who put their own safety above aesthetics. Such helmets should be adopted universally to promote player safety and discourage the tendency to use helmets as a weapon.
Other changes should be considered in the name of safety. Mouth guards have been shown to reduce concussion risk, but the NFL does not promote the use of the highest quality mouth guards. Again, were NFL players to use safer mouth guards, college and high school athletes would follow suit. The football facemask, an iconic part of the modern game, is also an outdated technology. Not only do facemasks provide the opportunity for players to find a hold on an elusive runner, exposing that player to potential neck injury, the related penalty often has an unnecessary effect on the outcome of games. Clear plastic face guards, like those used in hockey, could reduce the risk of such injuries while eliminating the need for facemask penalties. This change would benefit the sport in terms of both safety and competitive fairness.
The NFL’s crackdown on unnecessary brutality is a good start, but more change is needed. If the NFL is serious about the safety of its players, and more importantly the safety of amateur athletes across the country, it must take all available steps to make the game safer. Equipment improvements and rules changes are necessary. Until they are adopted, the NFL is merely paying lip service to safety. Football is a dangerous sport, and the risk of injury will never be eliminated, but the long term consequences of orthopedic injuries pales in comparison to the risk posed by neurological injuries. An increased focus on safety would have a lasting, positive effect on the game, and our society.
David Croushore is a consulting professional and an MBA student at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He has been featured in a New York Times’ bestselling book on leadership and communication and is an avid fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.