Football safety debate could benefit from local examples

The topic of safety in football has recently risen to become a priority at all levels. There is a high level of concern that changing the rules, equipment or strategy will detract from the entertainment value of one of America's most popular sports.

Specifically, this initiative is the result of the rising number of concussions and spinal injuries, as well as the potential long-term effects of cumulative trauma.

Football is among what are best described as violent collision sports. Others include hockey and rugby. Concussion is a group of symptoms that results from a blow to the brain. It may be from a direct blow or a sudden jerking of the head causing the brain to strike the inner skull.

Proposed changes in football include changing the rules to penalize players for what is felt to be excessive violence as well as using their helmets as weapons. Another proposed change is modifying the execution of plays to minimize vulnerability to injury. Some absurd proposals include eliminating the use of helmets entirely.

One change that would make a difference is creating a "culture of safety" in football.

Arguably, from the standpoint of neurological injury, the most violent sports are combat sports like boxing, mixed martial arts and kick boxing. In boxing, the only way points are scored is by inflicting neurological injury on the opponent.

In Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation, the Mashantucket Pequot Athletic Commission and the Connecticut State Boxing Commission have developed this approach over recent years. Interestingly, the changes put in place have not taken away from the "entertainment factor" in any of these events.

Maybe there is something to be learned.

A culture of safety means that the safety of athletes is the highest priority. Safety takes precedence over money and winning. It is also not limited by time and is an ongoing process.

Boxing has shortened the number of rounds involved in a bout. A typical championship match used to be 15 rounds and is now 12.

Locally, many bouts are four or six rounds and there are more bouts on a card for the night. MMA uses three, five-minute rounds. This provides an opportunity for more athletes and removes them from exposure to injury.

The NFL is currently considering lengthening the season to 18 games from the current 16- game schedule. This will increase the exposure of professional football players to neurological injury.

Combat sports utilize independent physicians to evaluate participants. These physicians are not employed by the venue, promoter or fighter. Professional football relies on a system where physicians are direct employees of the team.

Rules have evolved in combat sports to allow for safety. Football is trying to implement similar rules. These are in place to make the contest safe and officials will gradually become more comfortable with enforcement, while athletes will become more comfortable with following the rules. In boxing, the loss of points or disqualification have been effective penalties. Hefty fines as proposed by the NFL have little impact.

Creating a culture of safety is not an overnight process but a gradual evolution. Football does not need to "reinvent the wheel" to promote safety at all levels.

No comments: