5 Ways Football Could Be Made Safer
Former NFL quarterback Brett Farve told the TODAY show the toll of his football career and 525 sacks in the NFL "has got to be pretty high." Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Brett Farve told the TODAY show Monday that he's been experiencing memory loss he believes is related to his 20-year pro football career, in addition to playing every game over four years in college and before that, high school.
Farve said he can't remember his youngest daughter's time playing soccer, and sometimes has trouble remembering a word or finishing sentences.
“Don't want to knock football at all," he said in the interview. "I think that's unfair. I knew what I was getting into. To think that I could help maybe ease maybe some of the potential trauma, but still keep the integrity of the game, I’m willing to do that.”
Farve's comments add to ongoing concerns over head injuries that can cripple a player for life.
In late August, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players who had filed a class action suit charging the league either knew or should have known the long-term consequences of concussions.
Most of the money will go to players’ medical care and some to research. Football has changed from the days of leather-clad helmets and muddy brawls, but experts say there are still things that can be done to make the game safer.
Special helmets designed at Virginia Tech contain 12 accelerometers and a wireless transmitter that can send hit data to a nearby laptop that is monitored during practices and games. Courtesy of Gunnar Brolinson
Helmets are the last line of defense in preventing head injuries, according to Gunnar Brolinson, dean of sports medicine at the Virginia Tech College of Osteopathic Medicine. Brolinson and colleagues have been testing helmets since 2003 with tiny sensors called accelerometers that measure the speed of impact at various locations. Their database has been used to develop helmets that can better dissipate energy and protect the head.
To prevent neck injuries, special padding is being used to allow the helmet to twist slightly during impact while the player’s head and neck remains on the same plane. Another helmet actually lights up when a player has sustained enough force to cause a concussion. The NFL Players’ Association rejected the helmet. Some high school and college teams are wearing new padding on the outside of the helmet called “Guardian Caps,” although their effectiveness hasn’t been proven.
“You can’t make a helmet that completely eliminates the risk of concussion,” Brolinson said. “But the better you can manage those loads the better the player is going to be.”
Some teams are cutting back on practice time in pads to reduce the number of hits. Youth leagues such as Pop Warner have decided to eliminate full-speed practices with pads, while the Ivy League has sharply reduced them. “The fewer hits the athlete can take the better off they are,” said Jeffrey Kucher, a neurologist at the University of Michigan who studies sports injuries.
While NFL players have complained about injuries sustained during the four count-for-nothing exhibition games, the NFL says it would only reduce the preseason if it c an expand from 16 to 18 regular season games.
Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears receives the opening kickoff during an NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on Aug. 15, 2013 in Chicago. Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
The “flying wedge” formation of blockers running interference for ball carriers during kickoffs has been banned in college football. This year, the NFL has outlawed tackles using the crown of the helmet outside the tackle box. The rule changes have caused grumbling among many players, but concussions dropped slightly when the league moved the kickoff line from the 30 to the 35 yard line, resulting in fewer runbacks. NFL commissioner Roger Goddell briefly considered a complete ban on kickoffs in 2012, but the proposal wasn’t sent to the league’s rules commission.
Players are now given medical evaluations on the sidelines if team doctors think they have a concussion, including tests for balance, memory and eye movement. More players are spending more time on the bench rather than returning to the game, but physicians admit that in the macho world of pro football, players will lie to keep playing, according to Mark Lovell, former consulting doctor to the Pittsburgh Steelers and chief scientific officer of ImPACT Applications, which has developed a concussion testing software system.
“The basic mentality of the pro athlete is still that it’s a risk I’m willing to take, especially if I’m getting paid for it,” Lovell said. “People don’t want to be singled out or taken away from their team."
Some medical researchers are now working to develop a small test strip that could turn color in the presence of certain proteins released by the brain when it has been hit too hard.
Right now, the only way to recover from a concussion is rest. Physicians say that it’s not a single knock to the head that causes long-term problems, but rather repeated concussions over time. Former NFL players in the lawsuit that was just settled say they have ended up with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and dementia from repeated hits to the head. But is there a way to protect the brain early on during the recovery process with drugs? Some scientists are trying to find out.
There’s also some preliminary evidence that some people have a greater genetic disposition for sustaining a concussion, including those with the ApoE4 gene, according to a report by the American Academy of Neurology in May 2013. Perhaps genetic testing will allow some athletes to better protect themselves, or choose another sport. The same report listed football and rugby as the most risky organized sports, followed by hockey and soccer.