Concussions in the NFL Are a Problem. How Can We Fix It?

Concussions are a part of football. As terrible as that sounds, it is the truth. No football player will ever be completely safe from concussions as long as the game is played. However, there are steps that could be taken to more effectively prevent concussions.

My proposition is a rule change that requires every NFL player to wear one of the top three performing helmets. This would not give players options to wear the lower-tier helmets that have been proven to significantly provide less protection than the top tier helmets. If there is no option to wear the lower-tier helmets, there will be a significant decrease in documented concussions in the NFL. The helmets would be tested yearly and the top three would be the only options for the following season.

A concussion is a traumatic injury to the brain that results in temporary loss of normal brain function. It usually is caused by a blow to the head. In the National Football League, there were 135 documented concussions in the 2018 regular season, with 214 total concussions including the preseason, according to NFL reports. These numbers are down from 190 and 281, respectively, from the 2017 NFL season. Along with recent rule changes, this drop in numbers can be attributed to the recent shift in the use of better performing helmets. In Week 17 of the 2017 season only 41 percent of NFL players wore the league’s top-performing helmets, however, the final weeks of this recent NFL season, that number was as high as 74 percent. While this year’s concussion numbers were much lower this season, they are still very high. The next lowest years in concussions was 2014, in which only 206 total concussions were documented. This is definitely a sign that this issue is slowly being dealt with, however, it must be solved quicker. The number 218 represents people that are affected by these traumatic brain injuries, which can have long-term effects on neurological, mental, and even physical health.

Concussions have many short and long-term effects on all aspects of one’s health. Short term symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, confusion, nausea and vomiting, foggy brain, delayed response to questions and sensitivity to light and sound. While those symptoms can subside with time, other symptoms can persist for much longer. Common long term symptoms of concussions can consist of memory and concentration issues, irritability and other behavioral changes, sleep disturbances, prolonged light sensitivity, and depression and other psychological disorders. Concussions have also been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, which can lead to more serious conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The biggest problem with the new, high tech helmets is getting players to wear them. Most NFL players have worn the same helmet for the majority of their career and are usually hesitant to switch to something new and different, like the newest helmets that are vastly different than the helmets of the past in areas such as design, shape, size, and weight. For example, Tom Brady’s iconic Riddell VSR-4 will be banned this next season. The VSR-4 was originally released in 1993, and many players, such as Brady, have worn it their entire career. Brady attempted to switch to a Riddell SpeedFlex this year. The SpeedFlex is one of the highest performing helmets in use, and also one of the most common top tier helmets worn by players. However, he eventually switched back to his original helmet. Brady stated the reason he switched back was due to the feel of the helmet, complaining specifically about the weight of the helmet, as it is one of the heaviest helmets available, as opposed to the VSR-4 or even other high-end helmets such as the Schutt Vengeance Z10, and the Schutt F7, which are all significantly lighter than the SpeedFlex. This is a problem in the league that needs to be stopped. While the younger players are coming in wearing the newer helmets, many of the veterans are still fitted in old models. NFL equipment teams have been tasked with recommending the newer, better performing helmets, however, a recommendation can only do so much. So, if there is no option to wear the old models, all players will be in top tier helmets. They will still have an option out of the three, however now their options are all new and the most protective.

As part of the rule change, the NFL, or independent contracted research team, would test helmets yearly. Using both observations of on-field performance and lab testing, the research team would determine the three helmets most effective in preventing concussion symptoms, to decide which helmets would be allowed by the NFL. By testing yearly, the list of allowed helmets would constantly be updated with that year’s best models, ensuring the safest helmets every year. This would not require any extra funds as the NFL commissions a yearly test anyway, which usually results in the very lowest tier helmets being banned from NFL use. For example, last season eight different helmets were banned immediately, with two more helmets being allowed for one last season if the wearer wore that model the year before. However, those two models will be banned this next season.

One concern about this rule change would be that the helmet companies would lose revenue, which is probable. However, production of the lower end helmets could be lessened, or even stopped, to focus on the more high tech helmets, which naturally cost more to purchase due to more reliable technology and material. The top available helmet, the VICIS ZERO1, sells for roughly $900, dropping from the original $1,500, which is steep compared to other helmets. However, it hardly seems logical to put a low price tag on player safety. The helmets in the middle of the charts could still be approved for youth play, such as elementary age leagues where the forces of hits are significantly less.

I truly believe that the NFL should establish a new regulation allowing players to only wear the three most reliable helmets. This is for player safety, as the top three helmets would be the most successful at preventing concussion symptoms during play. This could cause a drop in the number of concussions dramatically, which is a large concern about the game of football currently. This could be done using the current yearly tests commissioned by the league already, at no extra cost. If this rule change was successful, perhaps other organizations would follow in suit, reducing the number of concussions at every level. As both someone who has experienced double-digit concussions, and someone who works in equipment at a D1 university, I believe that there is, and should be, more than what’s being done to prevent these injuries that occur constantly in football at all levels of competition.

I am Easton Berrett,  a student at Utah State University studying Kinesiology with an Exercise Science emphasis, and works as a student equipment manager for Utah State Football.

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