The average weight of NFL Nose Tackles is 322 lbs. Include the weight of their equipment and that’s a considerable force enacted on any player unlucky enough to get in their way. The NFL has a difficult history with complications caused by injury. And, in the clearest admission to date, the NFL’s chief health and safety official, Jeff Miller, acknowledged the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in dozens of retired players.
In a round table discussion on Capitol Hill, Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, questioned Miller on whether ‘there is a link between football and degenerative brain disorders like CTE’, to which the official answered: ‘The answer to that is certainly, yes.’ Miller went on to note his lack of a medical background but admitted that studies had been conclusive, constituting the first recorded admission of the link by an NFL official.
The NFL has been very careful with its handling of the matter in the past, for which Schakowsky accused football’s governing body of having a ‘very troubling track record of denying and discrediting scientific enquiry into the risks of playing football.’ In 2009, a spokesperson from the NFL told The New York Times that is was ‘quite obvious from the medical research that’s been done that concussions can lead to long-term problems’. The league then stepped back, choosing to allow the medical community to make advancements in their research before taking an official stance, and the acknowledgment then took a further seven years to arrive. CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, by identifying a build up of a tau protein in parts of the brain. And the question is not one of whether the link exists, but of its prevalence.
Even prior to the confirmation, the NFL have been dealing with settlements compensating former players. In 2013, the governing body was forced to pay out $765 million to thousands of retired players and their families, following their claims that playing professional football left them with brain damage. The cost - less than 0.5% of the NFL’s annual revenue - is a small price for the sport to pay given the severity of the claims and the potential impact of the damage caused. Forbes described the payment, which equals about $20,000 per year for 20 years per player, as a huge victory for the NFL given the potential outlay faced. Even then, though, the NFL did not admit any guilt, and the recent admission is a positive step forward, with the conversation set to change from the debate regarding the link’s existence, to the possible solutions to a life-endangering problem.
There are steps than can be taken to limit concussions and subsequent complications. The likes of Reebok and Battle are producing ‘head impact sensors’ which fit inside the helmets of players and can relay the severity of an impact to the touchline, to be assessed by the medical staff. Helmets with inbuilt technology have been in development for years, but the NFL’s admission may see their development and eventual implementation fast-tracked. The technology has not avoided controversy, though, as headsets that are faulty or dangerously insensitive could give players and medical teams a damaging false sense of security. Principally, they do not diagnose concussion or other head injuries, and will need to be used as a tool in the wider assessment of a player’s condition, rather than a system to be relied on.
Taking a slightly different approach, companies like VICIS are developing helmets not built to detect dangerous collisions, but to avoid them. Founded by a paediatric neurosurgeon - Sam Browd - with all too much experience of ‘retiring’ children from football as a result of early head injuries, VICIS are launching their Zero1 helmet that ‘buckles’ to reduce the risk of damage. According to Browd, the helmets currently in use were never developed with concussion in mind, rather they inhibit the possibility of skull fracture, haemorrhages and other more immediately serious injuries. And Browd’s purpose-built helmet will take time to introduce, if indeed they prove to be a better safety helmet. The process that new equipment must go through before being used in competition is extensive, and includes independent assessment as well as rigorous testing. The price tag also far exceeds that of standard helmets, coming in at $1,500 rather than between $150 and $400, as is standard.
The solutions may be, at present, imperfect, but concussion has never been so entrenched in the NFL’s safety considerations. Regarding the creation and implementation of new technology, as well as training techniques that could reduce a player’s likelihood of head injury, the NFL would be wise to support such schemes to avoid further hits to both their reputation and their chequebook.