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Sunday, October 24, 2021

NFL yearns stable, long-term health for former players

National Football League taking steps toward concussion, CTE awareness, prevention

In Physics, The Law of Momentum Conservation states that when two objects collide in a closed system, the total momentum of the two objects before the collision is the same as the total momentum of the two objects after the collision. The momentum of each object may change, but the total momentum must remain the same. Essentially, when two objects collide, the momentum of one object can transfer its momentum to the other object upon collision, sending the collided-upon object back in its initial direction with a much greater force. 

At most levels of football, athletes of the same level produce similar amounts of power and momentum — regardless of the differences in size. And as football season is currently in full swing, there seems to be weekly instances of players suffering terrifying blows to their head. It’s no wonder that, in 2017, a study conducted by Boston University detected evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 of the 111 brains donated to them by deceased former NFL players, showing just how grave of a problem CTE truly is. 

CTE is described as a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. Symptoms may include behavioral problems, memory loss, aggression, depression and risk of suicide. Symptoms typically do not begin until years after the injuries and often gets worse over time. 

The movie “Concussion”, which was based on a 2009 exposé written by Jeanne Marie Laskas and published by GQ magazine, tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who first identified CTE in football players and who has been a volunteer associate clinical professor for UC Davis health. While the film does dramatize Omalu’s story, it does contain an interesting quote:

“All of these animals have shock absorbers built into their bodies,” explains Omalu, who is portrayed by Will Smith in the film. “The woodpecker’s tongue extends through the back of the mouth out of the nostril, encircling the entire cranium. It is the anatomical equivalent of a safety belt for its brain. Human beings? Not a single piece of our anatomy protects us from those types of collisions. A human being will get concussed at sixty G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? One hundred G’s. God did not intend for us to play football.” 

The NFL continually preaches that it is doing everything under its power to make the game safer as a whole. But the fact that the league didn’t keep any sort of data on concussions before 2012 is an incredibly worrisome trend. The NFL’s prior denial of the issue was certainly a reason why 99% of the Boston University study tested positive for CTE. Dr. Bennet said after research, he concluded Mike Webster, the first ever professional football player to be diagnosed with CTE, suffered “more than 70,000 blows to the head.” 

Nevertheless, the league is constantly implementing changes in attempts to rectify its past. In addition to sculpting the league-wide form tackling model into more of a behind-the-body, rugby-style tackle, rather than thrusting the helmet and shoulder pads in front of a sprinting ball carrier, the NFL and its intertwined helmet companies have began to spend more money on helmet research. 

Last season was the first season since 2014 in which the NFL’s concussion total went down, dropping a rather impressive 24%, from 281 to 215. The total rose from 2012 until 2014, dropped to 206 in 2015, but increased yearly after that until 2018. This sudden drop in traumatic head injuries is likely correlated with the league cracking down on helmet discrepancies — most notably in regards to weight and age. 

This offseason, former star wideout Antonio Brown made headlines for wanting to play in a helmet that had been discontinued in 2014 and the league specifically outlawed this year — the Schutt Air Advantage. The helmet’s manufacturer, Schutt, even went as far as to say that the Air Advantage was discontinued “because current helmet technology had moved past it.” 

The age of the helmet is the primary reason the NFL wouldn’t allow Brown to wear it, but the helmet also had a minor problem: its ultra-light weight. The Air Advantage was designed for skill position players, weighing in at barely over three pounds with a facemask on, while other helmets such as the Riddell Revolution Speed Pro weighs over double at seven pounds. The Air Advantage featured lightweight foam padding, while all current helmets are integrated with TPU (thermoplastic urethane) Cushioning, which absorbs significantly more impact across a wider variety of temperatures than any other helmet on the field. 

Ten years ago, the nicest of helmets cost no more than three hundred dollars, and even that was a stretch for most companies and consumers. Now that the world, and especially the football community, is aware of the extreme risk that head injuries pose, helmets are costing up to $2,000. As of this year, Riddell is custom 3-D printing helmets to mold perfectly to the individual’s head, which go for around $1,700 each. 

For the relative bargain of $950, the VICIS Zero1 is a “multilayered, highly engineered” new helmet that is being described as the safest in NFL tests. It has fancy polymers and a deformable shell that’s said to absorb shock like a car bumper. 

In the beginning of the 2018 season, only 41% of the NFL used helmets deemed “high-performing” while 17% wore models the NFL warned of being “low performing” or almost prohibited. By the end of the season, 74% of players used the high performing helmets, while only 2% continued to use their longtime models that the league didn’t recommend. As evident by these numbers, it’s clear that the attention given to helmet science has thus far paid off. Although the prices of helmets are steep for non-professional athletes, hopefully the research and technology implemented into the new helmets continues to pay off for.

Written by: AJ Seymour — sports@theaggie.org

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