NFL concussion problem—SOLVED

We’ve had a brutal cold snap of 30o here in NC, so of course they cancelled school.  I can’t think of a better way to calm my nerves after a day pent up with ‘Lil and Mini with 1000% energy not being able to play with friends outside, than to solve one of the major problems facing a major industry.  That’s just what I do.


The end is neigh?

It’s pretty incredible that it’s come to this.  The NFL is and has been so amazingly popular, that it’s hard to imagine it going away, yet that is what some fairly well-respected sports analysts have predicted.

I don’t know if I am there yet, but such a decline definitely wouldn’t be without precedent.  The best example is boxing.  Boxing used to be the king of the sports world back at the beginning of the 1900s.

Boxing’s decline can be traced to several reasons, but certainly its brutality has to play a major role in turning off fans.  It was hard to see how debilitated Muhammad Ali was later in life, and it was because he got punched in the face so often.  Each fan had to make a moral choice: “were those fights exciting enough to entertain me in spite of what it was doing to that person’s mind and body?”

Today a lot of people are feeling that about watching NFL games.  Just recently we saw a game where Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier tackled a Cincinnati Bengal, leading with his head (we’ll talk about that more in a minute), and was paralyzed below his waist.  It was a hard scene to watch as they secured the all-Pro to the backboard and wheeled him off the field then to the hospital.

That’s one type of injury that happens in the NFL.  It’s certainly jarring but it’s not all that common.  The other is the gradual degradation of the brain (CTE), basically where your brain gets injured due to repeated blows to the head.

There are staggering headlines out there that lead you to believe this is happening to everyone.  I’m not there just because there haven’t been comprehensive studies to statistically prove this is so widespread (but when did sound statistical principles keep CNN from throwing a provocative headline out there?).  Whatever, we could debate this over a beer for a while.

Yet, all this does adds up to the potential that the NFL goes from dominating the American sports landscape to either being sued out of existence (unlikely) or receding into oblivion like boxing.  But I’m here to solve it.


Get rid of helmets

Over the decades, a ton of technology and engineering has gone into making helmets stronger and able to withstand greater forces and pressures.  And . . . that’s the problem.  Making better helmets makes the problem worse.

Let’s think about that for a minute, and break it down like an economist.  The biggest problem is that players, almost exclusively on the defense (more on this in a second), are hitting each other really, really hard in the head . . . with their head.

These hits that paralyze people and cause concussions come from “helmet-to-helmet” hits.  It makes sense.  Our bodies are shaped to be able to focus maximum energy and momentum behind our core and head.

Now the economist in me is coming out.  Helmets are designed to protect players which is really another way of saying (especially to defenders): “You can hit harder and not get hurt.”  With this it’s no wonder that players are hitting harder and harder, because they have equipment that supposedly protects them.  Of course the problem is those harder hits increase the potential for catastrophe (paralyzation like Shazier) or long-term damage like CTE.

If you provide helmets, players are going to hit harder.  If they don’t have helmets, they aren’t going to hit as hard because of SELF-PRESERVATION.  No way a linebacker launches his head at a running back’s head if he’s not wearing a helmet.  There are immediate and devastating consequences to that, so you wouldn’t have those hits anymore.


That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard . . . or maybe not

I can imagine you saying, “That’s insane.  You’re going to kill people.”  But I don’t think so.

A really great analogy to football but without helmets is rugby.  It’s fast-paced, it’s very physical, the dudes are huge, AND THERE ARE NO HELMETS.  There’s a CTE issue in football and there isn’t a CTE issue in rugby.  I’m just saying.

So here’s how I would do it:

First, I would ban all helmets by all defenders and offensive lineman.  Quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers would still get to wear helmets, although the helmet would be a toned-down version of what exists today (more on this in a second).  Given that nearly all personal foul penalties for head-to-head hits are called against the defense, it seems appropriate to start looking at reducing those “defender-driven” hits.

Without helmets, defenders would be required to make tackles with their arms and chest and bodies, NEVER WITH THEIR HEAD.  Offensive lineman and defensive linemen would go after each other like they do now, but they wouldn’t butt heads again due to self-preservation.

Offensive skill players (by definition, the only ones who get tackled) would have helmets to protect their heads since they are the ones being targeted by all the other people on the field to be hit, so I think it makes sense for them to have a bit more protection.

Problem solved.  The NFL can thank me in the form of a check with a 7 and then at least six zeros behind it at any time.

There are a couple problems, but I actually think they’re pretty manageable:

Protecting eyes, teeth, and other parts of the face—this is a fair point and I don’t see any problem allowing all players to wear sports goggles (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar style) to protect their eyes.  Also, as is the case today players would wear mouth-guards.  Noses are vulnerable, but that’s the point.  Don’t lead with your face and you won’t break your nose.  And it’s not like broken noses are pervasive in rugby.

Offensive players targeting defenders—if offensive skill-positions have helmets, will that shift the balance in the game to where defenders won’t be able to tackle offensive players for fear of getting headbutted by someone wearing a helmet?  I’m not too worried because defenders are so good and fast (and they’ll be even faster without helmets) that the vast majority of the time they are on the offensive player making a tackle before he has any time to start targeting the defenders.

Second, any tackles that are not head-on aren’t an issue.  So right there, those two points solve 95% of those issues.

Plus, remember that a toned-down helmet wouldn’t cause as much damage if it did hit another player.

Following the rules today, you could have devastating penalties for any play where an offensive player’s helmet touches another players’ head (like expulsion from game and award 7 points to opponent).  But I actually don’t think it would happen all that often.

Turnovers have offensive players (with helmets) become defensive players—this is another issue that seems big on paper but may not be that big an issue.  It’s exceptionally rare to have a helmet-on-helmet penalty on an offensive player after an interception.

If you wanted to be extra careful you could say that on turnovers, the play is over when the defender (who now has the ball) is touched rather than tackled.  That’s super pussy, and I don’t think it’s necessary, but bear in mind we’re talking about the survival of the league and the game.


MAJOR BENEFIT—Of course the biggest benefit is eliminating the head-to-head hits that cause the paralysis and CTE, that goes with out saying.  But you know another major benefit to the NFL and its players?  The football players will become a lot more marketable.

Right now none of the top athletes from an endorsement perspective are football players (Peyton Manning is retired so I didn’t count him).  That’s kind of incredible that the NFL is the US’s most popular sport but it doesn’t have any of the top endorsement athletes.

One reason is that the players wear helmets so you can’t see their face.  The top endorsement-athletes are mostly basketball players (nothing worn on their head during games), soccer players (ditto), tennis players (ditto), and golfers (wear a baseball cap).  There are no race-car drivers (helmet that completely covers face), football players, baseball players (baseball cap or batting helmet), hockey players (helmet with visor).

Allowing the viewing public to see their faces will be a boon for football players who want to be the face of soft-drinks and search engines and cars.  There will be a ton of money for them to make.


So there you have it.  Problem solved.  As you watch the NFL playoffs this weekend, think about how my innovation could save the game.

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