ROSENBERG: Brain Power

Contributing Columnist

Did anyone else watch the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football this week? The most striking thing about the otherwise boring game was how every play seemed to end with someone writhing on the ground. In fact, Steelers safety Ryan Clark was concussed for the second time in three weeks. The first one didn’t stop him from playing the next two games though, and this one looks like it won’t force him to sit next week either.

Concussions were, yet again, a trend in the NFL’s Week 10: In addition to Clark’s concussion, three starting quarterbacks in other games left after suffering concussions.

Let’s be clear, concussions are a big deal, and football players are extremely likely to suffer them. Repeated concussions have been shown to cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative neurological disorder that can result in dementia, Parkinson’s syndrome or severe depression. In fact, recent research has shown that CTE appears to manifest itself not only in players who have an extensive history of concussions, but also in players who have taken myriad subconcussive blows to the head. Previously, players judged the danger of brain damage by the number of concussions they had suffered. It turns out the smaller hits were just as important.

We generally think of the most dangerous positions (other than quarterback) as the speed ones — mostly wide receivers and running backs get concussed. But consider this: An NFL lineman engages in helmet-to-helmet contact on nearly every play. It is estimated that a lineman gets hit in the head 1,000 times per season. Take the years of high school, college and professional football together, and for someone who plays a 15-year career in the NFL, that’s 25,000 blows to the head.

Although the repercussions of this brutal game often appear much later in life, there’s no question that they trace back to football. The suicide rate among former NFL players is six times the national average. Recently, there have been a slew of suicides among former players, who frequently shoot themselves in the chest so that their brains might be studied.

Currently, there is a massive class-action lawsuit that former NFL players are bringing against the league. The plaintiffs claim that the NFL was aware of the cognitive dangers of playing football, yet still went ahead in promoting the most violent and jaw-dropping hits that so often capture the attention of live and television audiences. Perhaps under pressure from the lawsuit, there’s been a recent attempt by the league to curb the number of concussions, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The one successful rule change has been moving up the kickoff from the 30- to the 35-yard-line prior to the 2011 season.

Since then, spinal and head injuries on kickoff returns have decreased immensely, entirely because there are fewer kickoff returns. In 2010, the last year before the new rule, 16.4 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks. In 2011, that percentage had rocketed to 43.5.

Even though it has taken away from the excitement of special teams, we can all agree that this has been a successful rule change. Nothing is worse than seeing a kickoff returner break his neck on a football field or get his bell rung so hard that he’s out cold on the field for minutes.

And now it’s time for the NFL to extend its concern to other parts of the game, even if it’s at the risk of making the game a little bit less exciting.

A significant number of concussions come on helmet-to-helmet hits, when a defensive player uses his head as a weapon and leads his tackles with his cranium. The reason that players feel comfortable leading with their heads is because modern helmets are so heavily padded. This is a case where better technology in helmet security has led, paradoxically, to less safety.

There are two ways to rectify the situation. The first is to create a disincentive strong enough that it actually forces a decrease in the number of concussions on helmet-to-helmet hits. Specifically, the NFL should impose a several-game ban for such hits.

The second, which I believe to be the most promising solution, is to abandon the idea that helmets are protecting players. As was written in an op-ed in The New York Times in September, “No helmet can offer much help, since the injury occurs when a fast-moving body suddenly stops or changes direction. The brain keeps moving until it collides with the inside of the skull, causing damage that can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” The padding and sturdiness of modern helmets is illusory. If the league were to mandate something like a rugby scrum cap, which is headgear with modest foam protection, players would be forced to stop using their heads as tackling weapons. At the same time, they would still be significantly protected from suffering incidental concussions at the bottom of a pile or from a thrown football hitting them in the head.

I spoke with a member of the Yale football team who said that no fewer than five of his teammates have suffered significant concussions through the nine games so far this season. In fact, one has even been forced to retire from football because of an accumulation of them. As we all watch our Elis take on the Crimson this weekend in Cambridge, here’s hoping that we won’t see anyone get up woozy from a tackle or remain motionless on the field. Even if we don’t, though, it’ll be a deviation from the norm until the rules or technologies of the game are changed to discourage the use of the head as a tackling tool.

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