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Golden Nuggets: How Can Routine Head Trauma Be Prevented/Reduced in Football?

Today's lead is an article on football-related head trauma from the Wall Street Journal.

But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. "Almost every single play, you're going to get hit in the head," says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.

What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.

The problem is that there's nothing any helmet could do to stop the brain from taking lots of small hits. To become certified for sale, a football helmet has to earn a "severity index" score of 1200, according to testing done by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae. Dr. Robert Cantu, a Nocsae board member and chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., says that to prevent concussions, helmets would have to have a severity index of 300—about four times better than the standard. "The only way to make that happen, Dr. Cantu says, "is to make the helmet much bigger and the padding much bigger."

The problem with that approach, he says—other than making players look like Marvin the Martian—is that heavier helmets would be more likely to cause neck injuries.

One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it's a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.

Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."

Dhani Jones, a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals who has played rugby, too, says head injuries in that sport do happen, but they're mostly freak accidents. "In football, you're taught to hit with your face," he says. "You're always contacting with your 'hat,' which is your head."

After the jump,  the article goes on about the NFL can implement new rules and guidelines to protect players from routine head trauma.  After that, I have more luncheon quotes and a practice update from JO, a profile of Arizona's sack leader, a scouting report for basketball's opponent tonight, a look ahead to what this year's season may bring for Monty and co, and more.

Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon who has conducted brain research for the players' union, says the NFL should change the rules so linemen aren't allowed to go into three-point stances before plays—a rule that would prevent them from springing head-first into other players. He says he would also stop all head contact in football practices. Dr. Cantu says brain injuries could be reduced by enforcing rules already on the books in the NFL—especially helmet-to-helmet hits, which are not always called by officials. "There have to eventually be some hard sanctions for referees," he says.

To many, the solution is to come up with a better helmet. The NFL is currently conducting independent testing of helmets with a focus on "more accurate and comparative information about concussive forces," says neurologist Ira Casson, a co-chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.

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