Implementing Change in the NFL: Improving Player Safety in the NFL

Inspired in part by CrimeTime31’s post on CTE and call for ideas on improving player safety, I decided to look into what barriers and challenges exist to implementing increased player safety, particularly as it relates to concussions in the NFL. While this is not intended to be comprehensive, I simply want to illuminate some barriers I’ve seen that the NFL must address if it wants to make true headway in reducing concussions amongst its players. With players size, speed, and strength all increasing, the force of impact in the game will increase unless steps are taken now. These steps will have to contend against some if not all of the following:

1. The Players & their Union: While this may seem pretty harsh, I contend that the players and their union are often an impediment to bringing about increased safety to the NFL. As an example, look no further than the recent outcry against the NFL’s new "crown of the helmet" rule for the 2013 season, and the complaints against mandatory wear of knee and thigh pads. Current and former players alike were critical of the rule changes. Emmitt Smith, the Hall of Fame running back, claimed in a radio interview with Dallas’ 105.3 "The Fan" that the NFL’s crown of the helmet rule showed that the NLF had "…lost its mind." The NFL Network’s own Marshall Faulk also derided the rule change, calling it a "stupid rule" and then stating "I’m glad I don’t play in NFL right now, because I'm not quite sure how I would protect myself at times." The Player’s Union itself was especially critical of the new knee and thigh pad ruling, stating that the new rule represented a change in working conditions and as such, "Any change in working conditions is a collectively bargained issue." While this statement did not object to the rule change itself, it did oppose the process of implementing rule and equipment changes; namely, that the Player’s union had not been and should be included in the process going forward. This then lengthens the process of rule changes, a state that no fan wants to see. In addition, this discussion does not even address the inherent difficulty placed on referees in having to interpret and then enforce the new rules. Simply, the players and the Union have a culture and mindset that must be overcome in order to change, one driven to make the most out of their career while they can, a process that moves slowly and must be constantly addressed.

2. The Owners: While the owners (and therefore the league) are often criticized for their lackadaisical attitude toward player safety, I believe that most owners are actually trying to look out for the players, as the owners are very invested in the players. Players make the team, and teams that win usually have larger profit margins than teams that consistently lose. While a team’s market and history play a big role in this (despite their recent struggles, Forbes recently evaluated the Dallas Cowboys as the NFL’s most valuable franchise ), each team is still incentivized to keep its best players healthy and on the field in order to maximize its potential profits. Further, owners have to stay progressive in terms of player safety; otherwise, they are liable to be sued for placing its employees in an unsafe work environment. This is part of the basis of the on-going concussion lawsuit being pursued against the NFL, that the league "deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information" on concussions, contributing to an unsafe work environment and player injuries. While some owners are undoubtedly cheapskates (see Deadspin’s article regarding Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson), the vast majority of owners want increased player safety so that their team remains competitive, keeps fan interest high, and profits at the max. Yet, owners contribute to the play through pain mindset of the player each time they cut a veteran for a younger player. They have left players little option but to continue risking their future health for their current paycheck.

3. NFL Contracts with Equipment Manufacturers: The NFL has also impeded, intentionally or not, the development of safer equipment. I point to the exclusive contracts the NFL often signs for its equipment. For example, the NFL has a contract with Riddell, allowing the manufacturer to claim it is the "The official helmet of the NFL." This contract also forces players to either wear the official helmet, or, if they want to go with another brand, remove all logos from the "unofficial" helmet. However, this can lead to a false assumption, that Riddell makes the "best" or "safest" helmet available, a claim that is often not true. Bloomberg News has already covered this in far greater detail than I can, but the takeaway is that the NFL’s exclusive contract with Riddell has potentially only propped up one business while simultaneously stymieing potentially safer products that could improve player safety.

4. Team Doctors: This was brought up by Stephen (shaynes41) in CrimeTime31’s post, but suffice to say, NFL Team Doctors have a conflict of interest when it comes to evaluating player injuries. The Team Doctors are medical experts for the team, not necessarily to the players. The doctors are paid by the team, not the players, and therefore primarily advise the team as to the severity of an injury and its overall effects on the player and team. This, in my mind, has contributed to the players’ "play through pain" attitude, as they cannot risk being seen as a malingerer to their employers, or worse, being evaluated as athletically compromised and a potential roster cut, to be replaced by a younger, not as injured player. A player’s competitive attitude is, of course a key if not primary contributor to this attitude, but the suspicion that the team doc might be telling his boss that "he could play if he’d only suck it up" can rightly be pointed at as a contributing factor to a player willingly returning to the field when hurt, or showing he can still contribute despite being injured rather than healing up.

So what can the NFL do? So far, the NFL’s current policy seems to be a combination of several approaches: implement rule changes, vilify/penalize players through fines and suspensions for playing the game in a way that was actively encouraged until recently (anyone remember ESPN’s "Jacked Up" segments from its pregame shows?), and providing token funds for concussion research and equipment development (as CrimeTime31 put it, $90 million out of a $9.5 billion profit margin in 2012 is a drop in the bucket). Also, the NFL has made referees the first line of evaluators for a potential concussion, either by forcing them to diagnose a play in a split second and whether to penalize or not, or by noticing whether a player is suffering from a concussion on the field. I know the refs are just part-time employees, but it strikes me as being slightly ridiculous to have expanded their duties to include being a "front-line medic," so to speak. While I do not expect the NFL to make immediate progress in player safety, I do believe they can do a lot more than they have been in implementing effective player safety measures while preserving the game. Therefore, I propose the following steps, which hopefully address some of the barriers I’ve noted:

1. Participation in VA Tech-Wake Forest studies. So far, the NFL has not contributed to the Virginia Tech–Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences efforts in the study of concussions. While the researchers have studied college players in-game, the NFL has not added to this study. This should end immediately, especially since VA Tech-Wake Forest submits its data to industry, allowing industry to improve existing and future helmet designs through the STAR rating system. Moreover, the VA Tech-Wake Forest system has a system of sensors which can also aid in diagnosing a player that has potentially suffered a concussion. This can lead to a player receiving treatment, faster, as well as allowing industry to see the shortcomings of their product more accurately. This way, the NFL begins driving industry for a solution through data collection (much as the military has done recently) by setting standards the industry must meet for a potential product.

2. Remove Team Doctors from the on-field evaluation process. I am not proposing that all team doctors are eliminated; they do serve a valuable purpose in advising the team on a player’s condition, and they have every right as the employer to that advice. However, a team paid doctor should not be evaluating on-the-field injuries and whether a player can return to the field. As others have proposed, the Player’s Union, through a joint fund, could pay for Player’s doctors, ensuring players are evaluated with their interests in mind, not the teams.

3. Include the Player’s Union and the Referees in proposing and creating rule changes. This method would incentivize the players. Allow them a seat at the table, and have a voice in what rule changes are implemented and how they would be evaluated. This way, players have a better understanding of what a penalty is, and therefore how drastic their playing style would be altered. Same goes for the refs. This also incentivizes the players and referees, allowing them to shape the game as much as the league does.

Ultimately, the League has to deal with the fact that their fans and players are far better informed today than they have been in the past. Sticking with the status quo or purporting a "warrior" image is no longer acceptable, nor is being reactive to the severity of these injuries. The NFL needs to become more proactive in seeking solutions. If the League truly wants to look forward, these steps are just a few they can take. Otherwise, the NFL is not just at legal risk, but also at risk of losing on-field talent that is willing to suffer the brutality of the sport. I’m sure there are other approaches the league can take, let me know what you think.

This FanPost was written by a member of the Bolts From The Blue community and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bolts From The Blue editors or SB Nation.

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