During a professional football lockout that was marred by name-calling, stubbornness and greed earlier this year, the only thing the owners and players could agree on was that football needs to be safer. Both the short- and long-term effects of head injuries have hung over the league during the past few seasons, shortening and ending players' careers and lives.
At all levels of competitive pigskin — including Ivy League football — the question is the same: What can be done to make football safer?
Researchers hope to answer this question by analyzing the results of a recent study conducted by Brown, Dartmouth and Virginia Tech. The study, led by Joseph Crisco III, professor of orthopaedics at the Alpert Medical School, gathered data over the past three football seasons from the schools' respective football teams. Players were equipped with special helmets containing sensors that measured the frequency and violence of hits in order to learn more about concussions, the specifics of which continue to elude doctors.
"All we know is that, if you have (a concussion), you are more likely to have another," Crisco said. "If we don't understand the exposure, we can't understand concussions."
The study showed linemen suffer the most frequent blows to the head, while running-backs are predominately the most violently hit. The recording of these impacts was just the first step for Crisco and his team as they moved the project forward.
"It's unlikely that there is a single value at which someone gets a concussion," Crisco said. "Looking at the injury data is the next step." The researchers will be searching for similarities in the force and location of hits that resulted in a concussion.
Crisco said he hopes the study will be able to recommend safer practices and equipment for football players, but also that he believes equipment and technology can only go so far.
"It's unlikely that there will ever be a helmet that can prevent a concussion," Crisco said.
Head injuries in football have been a hot button topic across the sport, leading to rule changes at every level. The Ivy League is now limiting teams to only two days of full contact practice a week, which Bears' Head Coach Phil Estes said he is in favor of.
"I think it's something that we need to do, as a league, to show other leagues," he said in Sept. 6 Herald article.
The NFL has moved the spot from which teams kick-off up a full five yards, increasing touchbacks and discouraging returns that often end in violent hits. There has also been an increase in player heath care to deal with the long term effects of sub-concussive impacts that tend to be prevalent in linemen and other players who receive consistent blows to the head. These sub-concussive impacts have been linked to neurological conditions for players later in life and to psychological conditions such as depression.
"You shouldn't be allowed to lower your head," Crisco said. "I'm a football fan, and I love hitting. However, what's clear to us now is that intentional hits to head should not be a part of the sport."
"We need to keep the head out of the tackling and out of the blocking as much as we possibly can," Estes said. "You must do a better coaching job."