Photo: Jamie Lamor Thompson/Shutterstock

Concussions and the Future of American Football

by Benita Hussain Feb 3, 2011
As the government considers new safety legislation for youth football players, Benita Hussain takes a look at the way concussion culture is impacting the sport.

AS A MIDDLE SCHOOLER in Washington State, Zackery Lystedt was a rising football star whose talents allowed him to play both offense and defense on the field. He played his last game in 2006 at the age of thirteen, during which his head hit the ground after making a big tackle.

Following a 15-minute break, he re-entered the game, during which another player gave him another big hit. At the end of the game, Zackery collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with a brain hemorrhage that required the removal of parts of his skull and which took him in and out of comas for the next three months.

Three years after his injury, his parents’ efforts to change the laws in Washington State to require young athletes ample time to recover following possible concussions were awarded by a namesake statute, also called the “Shake It Off” Law. Since its passage in 2009, state legislatures, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Missouri and Texas, and Congress have been considering “wait to play” statutes, inspired both by stories like Lystedt’s as well as a 2009 National Football League study showing that brain-related diseases have been diagnosed in its former players at a rate 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

As a response, the NFL issued a similar regulation to the Lystedt Law—one that required players who exhibited “significant signs of concussion” to be barred from playing or practicing for the remainder of the day.

This was a necessary step for professional athletes, according to the NFL, because reported concussions—events that jostle or spin the brain–during games and practices increased by a surprising 21% between the 2009 and 2010 seasons. You doesn’t have to be a football fan to have heard of this season’s spate of high profile hits that have sidelined professional athletes, including Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, and Pittsburgh Steelers’ tight end Heath Miller.

According to exercise scientists who have studied the force of football impacts, many of which come from head-to-head contact, football collisions can exert forces of up to 300 Gs on a player’s head, compared to about 10 to 30 Gs for a low-speed, rear-end car crash. a low-speed rear-end crash. What I find most concerning about concussions is that a player may not display visible symptoms of brain damage until it is too late.

In those cases, wait-to-play statutes may be helpful, but some critics worry that new football rules with fines of about $50,000 for inappropriately hard hits are insubstantial in relation to the football players’ salaries.

A more direct solution would be an upgrade in safety equipment. This is not a novel solution: engineers have been working for years to develop effective equipment that also satisfies players. Some have suggested padding the outside of the helmet, as Mark Kelso, a safety for the Buffalo Bills did in the 1980s after suffering two concussions that nearly ended his career. He credits the outer padding with allowing him to play an additional 100 games and has said the padding made it safer for him as well as the players he was hitting.

Unfortunately, the other players didn’t seem to care about injury prevention as much as look and the “softness” associated with the padded helmet. It seems like another example of how the culture of football athletes may override safety aspects of the sports.

More recent designs are attempts to make safer helmets look more “badass” in order to fit players’ wishes. Thus far, the main helmet companies used by both professional and amateur football players, Riddell and Schutt, have been slow in developing new solutions.

Enter the Bulwark, created by industrial design engineer and ardent football fan Michael Princip. The Bulwark consists of five distinct panels, which can be mixed and matched for colors, but also go beyond the superficial. The outer panels are positioned over an inner shell, with a thin layer of padding in between the two, all of which are meant to divide and dissipate the force of a hit before it reaches the inner shell.

Additionally, the sectioned panels make it easier to customize the helmets for teams and positions. In the limited universe of football helmet makers, Princip, whose invention is still in the development stages, is hoping to show that highly engineered helmets can be cost-effective and aesthetically-pleasing, if he can break into the market.

According to observers like Cris Collingsworth, the host of Sunday Night Football, the public’s enjoyment of the hurt factor of football is both dangerous to the players and undermining the future of the sport. Following the plight of the Lystedts among thousands of other families, parents of future players may be less inclined to encourage football as a hobby unless safer tackle techniques and responsible playing are deployed from the top down, and encouraged from the pee-wee field up.

Feature Image: Schluesselbein

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