Thursday, December 10, 2015

Concussions and the "War on Football"

Lacking actual interesting sports topics to discuss, the last two days of sports radio have been
painfully blustery. An op-ed piece by the doctor who discovered CTE argued that we should ban football (as well as MMA, boxing, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, etc.) among children under the age of 18. Former NFL player and current talk show host Danny Kannell responded by calling it a "War on Foobtall"; talk show host Dan LeBatard responded by arguing that kids are dying and we should react accordingly; then the rest of the day was basically people yelling at each other and people who know nothing about science, arguing science.

And of course both sides are just extremes. The phrase, "war on football" invokes a similar reaction for me when a Christian refers to a "war on Christmas"--what an asinine statement. Let's not forget that there are people, you know, actually fleeing war while we are debating whether a game we play for fun should have age limits. We are arguing about youth sports, while other youth are trying to find their parents. Give me a break with that.

But on the other side, we have people arguing that football is too dangerous for youth. By this logic, we should also ban swimming, bike riding, driving, and skateboarding--all of which have equal or greater risks of death and head injury for teens than football.

So it's just silly.

But perhaps the silliest is that BOTH sides take it for granted that there is nothing you can do to make it safer. "It's inherently dangerous" is something said on both sides--with one side saying the danger is what makes it fun and people choose the danger willingly, and with the other side saying the danger is unavoidable and therefore we shouldn't do it.

But this is ridiculous.

Many, many professions are dangerous (frankly, football doesn't crack the top 50 or so). The roof on your house was installed with more danger than your average NFL game.

So how do we handle those types of dangerous professions?

Well, as a manufacturing director, I can tell you. OSHA has three levels of response:  engineering controls where we eliminate the hazard entirely; then administrative controls where we reduce the exposure to the hazard per person; and finally personal protective equipment where we protect the person from the hazard with equipment.

So...why don't we stop the histrionics and instead follow this well-proven, time-honored process with football?

Below are some examples of how this could occur.

1.  Engineering Controls (eliminate the risk)

  • Helmet-to-helmet tackles are not allowed (already in place in many cases)
  • At all age ranges, disallow practicing or gameplay in 90 degree heat or above (most common cause of football deaths in youth are due to heat-related effects)
  • Below age 13 (when brains are most in danger), do not allow offensive and defensive line play (which is where most collisions occur)
  • Below age 18:  eliminate kickoff returns - every possession begins at the 20 yard line 
  • Below age 18:  eliminate punt returns -  the punting team can choose to either give a specific yardage (40 yds for example) or attempt a 'coffin kick' to the edge of the end zone. 
This would make a few small changes in the youth games before brains are fully formed, but would not significantly impact the games at high school level and have no real impact at NCAA/NFL level to the quality of gameplay.

It might require a few more investments in indoor facilities in hot areas, but no change to the quality of gameplay.

2.  Administrative Controls (minimize exposure to the remaining risk)

  • Concussion protocol - the NFL's policy of removal and going through protocol is a good one
  • Education processes - to ensure coaches and trainers understand and can identify risks
  • Required substitutions of high-impact positions.  This is called "job rotation" in the real world, and would help as well as provide some interesting strategy. The idea is that just like basketball, hockey, etc., have substitutions and the bench is not just in case of injury, have 'shifts' on your offensive line, defensive line, running backs, and linebackers. They have to alternate possessions (or quarters) of play. This would make things very interesting strategically--do you keep all your great players on the same unit and be dominant on those possessions, or spread out the talent? It also rewards deeper teams, reduces frequency of injury at those positions, and reduces the number of microconcussions 50% immediately. It also means the energy level of the players will be higher as they are more rested throughout the game. And because it doesn't affect the skill positions, you won't see an aesthetic impact.

3. Personal Protective Equipment (protect against the remaining risk)
  • Continue to investigate how to use helmets and pads in the best possible way to minimize the impacts of the risks.

If we did just these 9 things, we would see a MAJOR reduction in the risks, with very little impact on the aesthetics of the game.

If I'm the NFL, I am implementing these immediately. It helps protect the future of the game without any major impact to the things that people love to watch.

And, almost as importantly, it shuts up the sports talk show hosts.

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