I was recently watching a football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. It was 3rd and long and San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick threw a rising pass toward the sideline. Tight end Vernon Davis leapt to make a great catch and as he was turning in mid-air, just before his feet hit the ground the defender drilled his shoulder into the arm holding the ball. Davis dropped the ball and landed hard on his back.
I quickly applauded this “textbook” tackle and defensive move. But my enthusiasm waned when I saw the official reach into his belt and throw that yellow handkerchief. Like any fan, I questioned the call; it wasn’t helmet-to-helmet! But the replay revealed two potential penalties: the defender launched his body and he hit a defenseless receiver.
The NFL has enacted rule changes that have had a direct impact on decreasing the rate of injuries. Other organizations such as the NCAA and youth football programs have now followed suit. As we continue to learn about the potential long-term complications that may occur after sustaining concussions, we need to identify specific aspects of the game that place a player at risk.
The NFL has organized different committees to aid in this effort. We have assembled an all-volunteer advisory panel of doctors, scientists and thought leaders in brain injury from academia, sports medicine, and engineering, the NIH, CDC and the Department of Defense. This committee includes researchers who have been critical of the NFL concussion panel in the past. This group has four subcommittees and is directing discussion and research ranging from long-term outcomes to education to making safer equipment.
Eight other medical advisory committees—comprised mostly of doctors plus experts from inside and outside the league—include the Competition Committee and the Injury and Safety Panel who work together to constantly reevaluate and refresh the rules reasonably and responsibly.
Protecting ‘defenseless’ players started decades ago by banning hits on kickers. That list has now expanded to include a quarterback at any time after a change of possession, and a player who receives a ‘blindside’ block when the blocker is moving toward his own endline and approaches the opponent from behind or from the side. A receiver who has completed a catch is a ‘defenseless player’ until he has had time to protect himself or has clearly become a runner. A receiver/runner is no longer defenseless if he is able to ward off the impending contact of an opponent.
The player hitting a defenseless player will be penalized 15 yards. The player will also be fined and if that player continues to commit the same infraction, he will be suspended. Is this enough to deter this dangerous play that can lead to concussions? After 16 years of being in the NFL, I have learned that players like to play and they like being paid handsomely to play. Therefore, fining and suspending a player who doesn’t abide by the laws of the game will be effective in limiting this kind of conduct.
However, the players currently in the NFL have been taught and have played this way for their entire career and we probably won’t see an appreciable change until the players in youth football, high school and college follow the new rules. This game is so fast and instinctive that it will be impossible to completely eliminate this type of play.
One trend in the game that became evident was the rising rate of concussions that were sustained by players on kickoffs. Two years ago the NFL moved the kickoff line five yards forward to the 35 in an effort to increase touchbacks. This rule change yielded a real benefit—a 40 percent reduction in concussions last year on kickoffs. There is talk about completely eliminating the kickoff from the game or putting a weight limit on players for kickoffs. Smaller players against smaller players would mean less severe collisions.
-By Peter F. DeLuca, M.D.