At some point in the past few months, someone who gets paid plenty of money to pick the best time to make announcements decided that the hump day between Week One and Week Two of the NFL regular season would be the best day to unveil the league’s new $100 million plan to improve safety equipment and to support medical research regarding head injuries. Likewise, someone who gets paid plenty of money to pick the best words for making announcements decided to do it through a letter written by the Commissioner (or at least signed by him) and posted at a dedicated website, a move the league may have learned from the Patriots.
Although the NFL gets sensitive at times about the use of P.R. techniques (such as the Friday afternoon bad news dump), why wouldn’t a $13 billion enterprise choose to disseminate information about itself in a way that’s intended to maximize the positive and to minimize the negative?
Minimizing the negative has become a major goal for the NFL since October 2009, when a Congressional committee conducted a hearing that persuaded the NFL to take immediate steps to address the concussion problem. Since then, plenty of changes have been made, from the procedures used to spot concussions to the procedures used to treat concussions to the procedures used to determine when a player can return from a concussion to efforts to reduce concussions. The new initiative (called “Play Smart. Play Safe.”) is aimed specifically at advancing these goals.
Does it seem like window dressing, only six days after the league engaged in minimal dressing down of Denver players who treated the season-opening game as if it was open season on Cam Newton, of officials who failed to keep it from happening, and of anyone involved in the failure to get Newton off the field for a concussion evaluation? Sure. But that doesn’t making the effort any less worthwhile.
Much of the money will be used to incentivize private business interests to develop safer equipment, with new helmets materials and construction being one of the focal points. The NFL wants to have better helmets within the next three-to-five years, with the possibility of helmets specific to each position on the field.
“[W]e know from tracking game and injury data that linemen experience different impacts than a wide receiver or a defensive back,” Goodell writes. “Yet their protective equipment is the same. We want engineers to use that information to consider design changes that address the specific needs of each position.”
Other potential advancements include the use of better cushioning for turf fields and the development of a blood test that can diagnose a concussion on the spot, which would become a lot more reliable that the currently subjective process of assessing symptoms.
In the same way that the PED stigma stuck only to baseball, concussions cloud football more than any other sport — even though plenty of other sports and activities can result in brain trauma. Instead of complaining about the reality that concussions are regarded as a football problem only, the NFL seems to be embracing its responsibility to spearhead advancements that could benefit other sports as well.
Still, other efforts are needed. The real-time and after-the-fact reaction by the NFL to the assault on Cam Newton highlighted major flaws in officiating, player discipline, and the concussion protocol. Unless real steps are taken to improve these dynamics on the front line of the concussion crisis, public confidence in the ability of professional football to diagnose and treat its biggest malady will continue to be low.