Posted on November 19, 2012 · Posted in Brain Injury

Last Thursday National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered an address at Harvard where, in detail, he vowed to “promote a culture of safety” in the game.

“Is playing tackle football worth the risk?” Goodell said during his speech before Harvard’s School of Public Health. “For some, the answer may be no. But millions say yes. We emphatically say yes. And I pledge that the NFL will do everything in its power to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards of this great and increasingly global game.”

Then, in remarks widely reported by the media, Goodell said, “My commitment has been and will continue to be to change the culture of football to better protect players without changing the essence of what makes the game so popular. It has been done. And it will be done. As stewards of the game, it is our responsibility to promote a culture of safety. To be leaders.”

In terms of leadership, Goodell said that the NFL will continue to make rule changes, invest in protective gear and give medical staffs the tools and authority to protect players on the gridiron from concussions.

“The rule in our league is simple and straightforward: Medical decisions override everything else,” he said. “There has been attention this week on the fact that three NFL quarterbacks sustained concussions last Sunday. The positive development was that all three were taken out of the game as soon as they showed symptoms. The team medical staff then diagnosed a concussion, and each player was out of the game. That is progress. That is the way it should be in all sports at every level.”

Goodell was referring to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vicks, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and San Francisco quarterback  Alex Smith.

The NFL is setting an example for other sports, according to Goodell.

“The concussion awareness material and training videos we developed with the Centers for Disease Control were used by the U.S. Olympic team this past summer,” he said. “The United States military, NASCAR and college conferences have adopted our concussion protocols. The Ivy League this year adopted rules similar to the ones in the new agreement with our NFL players, limiting contact in practices and emphasizing taking the head out of the game – as we have been doing.”

Said Goodell, “There is more to be done. And we will continue to lead by example.”

He stressed the need for research so that decisions will be based on facts.

“We actively support independent and transparent medical research,” Goodell said. “Much of this focuses on the brain, sometimes called the last frontier of medicine and a public health issue that affects millions. Most of them do not even play sports. We hope our focus on brain injury and the discoveries ahead will benefit the broader population.”

The NFL recently committed $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on the brain, and an agreement with players sets aside an additional $100 million for similar medical research over the next decade, according to Goodell. The league has invested millions more in medical research through its charitable foundations, including at the Boston University Center for the Study of CTE.

“We may learn through breakthroughs in science that there are genetic or other factors that make certain individuals predisposed to concussions or brain disease,” Goodell said. “If an athlete has repeated concussions or takes longer to recover, it may signal a problem unique to that individual. Such individuals will benefit from advances in the science of concussion.”

He added that the NFL also support research into new helmet designs and has sponsored independent helmet testing to provide better information to players on helmet performance.

“We may see a day when there are different helmets for different positions, based on which helmet can best protect players at their position,” Goodell said.

The NFL is also committed to updating its playing rules, to foster safety but still preserve “the essence of the game, according to the commissioner.

“We don’t want to take physical contact out of the game,” Goodell said. “But we must ensure that players follow rules designed to reduce the risk of injury. Enforcing rules on illegal hits to the head with fines and suspensions has changed tackling for the better. Players and coaches have adjusted. They always do. We now see fewer dangerous hits to the head and noticeable changes in the way the game is being played.”

He noted that two years after moving the kickoff line five yards forward to the 35 was a 40 percent drop in concussions on kickoffs, and that college football has adopted that rule.

Goodell also mentioned an idea suggested by an NFL head coach.

“Put a weight limit on players for kickoffs,” Goodell said. “Smaller players against smaller players would mean less severe collisions.

The NFL’s Player Safety Panel, co-chaired by Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and John Madden, has recommended that the league review the rules on all blocks below the waist.

“Protecting ‘defenseless’ players started decades ago by banning the hitting of kickers,” Goodell said. “We now have nine separate categories of defenseless players in our rule book. All players can be defenseless in certain situations and we must address it comprehensively.”

In another safety initiative, the NFL is testing accelerometers in helmets, according to Goodell. These are sensors that determine the impact of a hit.

The league is also using its position to act as an advocate for safety in sports.

“We took a lead role in supporting the Zackery Lystedt Youth Concussion Law,” Goodell said. “It applies to all sports. It requires education for coaches, players, and parents, removal from games or practice for any school athlete who suffers a concussion, and clearance by a medical professional before the athlete can return to play. This law has now been passed by 40 states and the District of Columbia. Our goal is to secure approval in all 50 states. And I am confident that we will get there.”

In a personal note, Goodell mentioned that he has twin daughters in middle school who play lacrosse and soccer.

“Girls’ soccer has the second highest rate of concussions in youth sports,” he told his audience at Harvard. “I am concerned for their safety. I want them to play, but I want them to play for coaches who know how to teach proper techniques and who are trained in the safety of their sport.”

Goodell said that 10 years ago the NFL helped endow a non-profit organization called USA Football, which has  created the only nationally accredited coaching course in the history of football. “Better certification and background checks of all coaches must be among the highest priorities for all youth sports,” he said.

USA Football has also commissioned an injury study and established a pilot program this year called “Heads Up Football.” That program welcomes parents to participate and offers  training and education for safer tackling, practice regimens modeled on the NFL.

“There is a critical need for more certified athletic trainers for youth and high school sports,” Goodell said. “According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, in 2010 only 42 percent of high schools had access to certified trainers who were trained in concussion care.”

The NFL also called for partners to help drive its safety initiative.

“We will continue to work with leading organizations to support independent research,” Goodell said. “One day we hope that will include the Harvard School of Public Health.”

To date the NFL has:

* Assembled an all-volunteer advisory panel of doctors, scientists, and thought leaders in brain injury from academia, sports medicine, engineering, the NIH, CDC, and Department of Defense. This group has four subcommittees and is directing discussion and research – ranging from long-term outcomes to education to making safer equipment.

* Now has eight other medical advisory committees within the league, comprised mostly of doctors plus other experts from inside and outside the league.

* With the help of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, it launched a pilot program to replace helmets in under-served schools.

“We need to be driven by facts and data, not perceptions and suppositions,” Goodell said.

For example, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done studies on NFL players and this summer “exploded a myth that has been circulating for years that the life expectancy of NFL players was 55 years of age,” according to Goodell.

“NIOSH found that the true life expectancy of an NFL player is actually longer than the general population,” he said. “There are real-life consequences when working off bad facts.”

Goodell also touted the NFL’s new partnership with the Army, which aims “to change the culture in both organizations.”

According to Goodell, “Too often, bravery and commitment to the unit or team stand in the way of safety. In this new partnership, NFL players and service members are working together to put in place a culture of safety. It is helping players and soldiers identify the signs and symptoms of brain injuries, and empowering them to make better decisions.” .

The commissioner pointed out that many players have admitted hiding concussions and other head injuries. At a dinner with family friends, their 15-year-old daughter admitting not telling anyone that she had blacked out during a field hockey game.

“She didn’t tell anyone because she didn’t want to come out,” Goodell said. “The next day she was diagnosed with a concussion. It’s the warrior mentality – in a 15-year-old girl. This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination.”

He maintained that the NFL’s goal is safety.

“The road may be long and twisting,” Goodell said. “But I have no doubt we will reach our destination – a culture of safety for every sport so our world continues to be blessed by the vital and vibrant rewards that come uniquely from sports.”

About the Author

Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice :: 800-992-9447