Fixing football's problem

There are two conversations that aren’t happening right now within the NFL and I’m not sure why.First let’s agree on one thing: The sport of football is on a decline. With the reality that head injuries are becoming a real problem (and not only in football), the higher-ups of the sport are trying to implement changes that protect the athletes while still creating an exciting product.

There are constant discussions on how to make the sport safer but amending the rules seems to be the only action taken to actually protect the athletes. But these rule changes aren’t fixing the game, they’re hindering it. They’re making it a shell of what it once was. Now, with the fear of hitting high and being penalized, players are hitting low which¬, from the standpoint of career longevity, can be more harmful than a hit up high (see: Rob Gronkowski. And F.Y.I. this hit that forces Gronk to be out for a year was completely legal).

Okay, so about those conversations I mentioned. The first one that needs to be had is about performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, in the NFL and the punishments – or lack thereof – that players receive when caught. The second conversation – which will likely be scoffed but makes so much sense – is why the athletes don’t wear padding on the outside of their helmets in addition to the inside. I will tackle (pun completely intended) these issues in succession.

PED Uses

As it stands right now, the punishment for PED offenses have three levels: four games without pay; eight games without pay; and a full 12 months without pay. These are all subject to more time determined by the NFL and NFLPA.

These are significant fines considering the NFL only has a 16-game regular season; however, the third offense is petty compared to other leagues’ policies. MLB – banned. NHL – banned. NBA – two years. In the Olympics, a third offense does not even exist. The first offense is a two year ban from any Olympic competition and the second offense is, you guessed it, banned.

Now maybe these punishments are light and other leagues, like the MLB, come down on their players too hard. There has never been an NFL equivalent of the Mitchell report or old, washed up ex-athletes writing about sticking needles in their teammates’ butts. Hell, in the MLB, you don’t even need to have failed a test to be suspended. See: Alex Rodriguez.

Or, on the complete flipside, maybe the MLB punishes its athletes in the 100 percent most appropriate way. I mean, it’s not like these athletes are just breaking the rules their sport has set. Anabolic steroids are illegal as set in place by the United States government. A first time offender simply possessing steroids is punishable by up to one year in prison.

And, HGH, though not intrinsically illegal, is by-and-large illegal. It is true that a person can be prescribed HGH (human growth hormone for those not in the know). But you need to have a hormone deficiency to get it, and to prove you are deficient requires lab testing. This drug is a problem for multiple reasons. The body does not process the drug in a constant manner, that is to say a blood test is hit-or-miss because the drug is released into the blood in “batches.” It also gets flushed out quickly so the opportunity window is small. The symptoms brought on by a deficiency in adulthood only add to the difficulty, including: reduced muscle mass, increased body fat, memory loss, reduced energy and hair loss.

In other words, everything that happens to dudes when they get older.

The entire reason for me bringing this stuff up is that maybe the NFL needs to employ some of the scare tactics of the MLB. Guys like Rodriguez and Ryan Bruan of the Brewers are demonized for their association with performance enhancing drugs whereas Von Miller of the Broncos barely got a blurb on ESPN for his use. A player being fined for a hit to the head seems to get more airtime than the player committing crimes.

The MLB has begun to regress. It is moving into Deadball era-esque type of play. The same with the NFL will likely happen. It’s a simple fix, really. Let these athletes know how unacceptable PED use is and things can go back to normal.

But, this fix is not nearly as simple as the following argument.

Putting padding on the outside of the helmet

How is it that in 2013 – 93 years after the NFL was founded – we don’t have helmets with more padding? It is mind boggling how little sense there is to be made of this.

There have been countless studies on football hits and the forces associated with them. The numbers are pretty alarming, and can be expressed in g-force.

One-g is you sitting in front of your computer right now not moving. An astronaut in a shuttle launch experiences a force of 3gs. Racecar drivers and pilots pass out under the force of 9gs. 22gs is the median number experienced by football players, as reported by the Purdue Neurotrauma Group. Concussions occur at g-forces around 100. This study’s high reported helmet impact was 289gs. Stefan Duma, the University of Nebraska’s director at the Center for Injury Biomechanics says they see 100g hits “all the time.”

When Riddell, one of the top football equipment manufacturers, was asked about the issue, they said the technology currently being used is the best that is available. Which made me think I had hit a dead end for the topic but then I read more. The test that Riddell uses on its helmets is rather crude. They take a 20 pound “head,” put it in the helmet and then drop it on a surface. Two problems. The first being that this “head” which is really just a solid piece of material, doesn’t have the characteristics like a real head does. There is no brain inside this material that may shift or be damage. Secondly, these falls max out at 75gs – 25gs short of when a concussion occurs.

Riddell claims they are using the best equipment available but football equipment has gone largely unchanged. Other sports have made dramatic changes to improve safety. Baseball going from its BESR certifications to BBCOR. Hockey goalie gear has become stronger and covers more area. NASCAR has made significant changes to improve the safety of the drivers.

Believe it or not, this has been done before. Mark Kelso, a safety for the Buffalo Bills in the ‘80s and ‘90s, wore a helmet with padding on the outside. He did so because, after suffering two major concussions, he was advised to give up the sport. But, instead, to keep playing he decided to make the helmet safer and put padding on the outside. He finished his career with 30 interceptions in eight seasons – impressive numbers for a 10th round pick. Steve Wallace, an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers also wore this “ProCap,” as it was called.

The “ProCap” or “Gladiator Helmet” was invented by a man named Bert Straus. When he brought his idea to the NFL, it was shot down immediately. The NFL and Riddell, both now being sued by ex-athletes for head related injuries, had a lucrative partnership and refused to use Straus’ creation. A simple speculation says that Riddell was offended because it pointed out the flaws in their creation – the same flaws mentioned above.

The only real downside to an outside-padded helmet is the aesthetics. Sure, it doesn’t look the best but that is only because we aren’t used to it yet. Baseball players didn’t used to wear helmets when batting and when they were forced to, the change was scoffed. Same with hockey. It is a minor sacrifice for a long-term benefit.

These changes I have suggested here may seem “soft” but really think about what I am suggesting here. I, as much as you, want the crushing tackles and open field hits. Not only are those plays exciting, that is what the sport was founded on. The game is designed to test how tough you are. My suggestions allow the game to return back to that state while improving overall safety for the players.

These are two conversations I know Roger Goodell and the rules committee and Riddell are not having because they’re admissions of failure. Agreeing with things like this is to say, “The way we have been running the NFL is wrong.” And who wants to admit they’re wrong? A person who truly cares about safety, that’s who.

You and I both agree Goodell and the NFLPA have made the game worse. Drug testing and equipment improvements aren’t soft. Rule changes are soft. My suggestions and these conversations are what we need to get the football we all loved to watch.