Making Football Safer: Research, education and legislation

The risk of concussions on the football field has become a major issue at both the youth and professional levels. Researchers and physicians fear they can lead to long-lasting brain damage. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

A recent Harris Poll indicated that the NFL’s popularity is rising, at an all-time high—up 12 percent from just 10 years ago. The second most popular sport is college football. The interest is simply amazing- driven by the character of the game, the talent and hard work of the athletes, the dedication of coaches and the passion of the fans.

The NFL not only has a long-standing commitment to the health and well-being of its own players, but also to players active in collegiate, high school and youth programs. This commitment includes continuous enhancements to player safety rules, support of community outreach programs to provide health and safety resources to all athletes and their communities and support for legislation that protects young athletes.

Leaders base decisions on facts. The NFL actively supports independent and transparent research. Much of this focuses on the brain, sometimes called the last frontier of medicine and a public health issue that affects millions. This organization recently committed $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on the brain. The CBA has set aside an additional $100 million for similar medical research over the next decade. This research will advance our education and knowledge of injury patterns, pathology of injuries and provide treatment/prevention guidelines.

The NFL advocated the passage of The Lystedt Law. Zackery Lystedt is a young man from the state of Washington who suffered a significant brain injury after returning to play in a middle school football game after sustaining a concussion. The Lystedt Law contains three essential elements:

  • Athletes, parents and coaches must be educated about the dangers of concussions each year.
  • If a young athlete is suspected of having a concussion, he/she must be removed from a game or practice and not be permitted to return to play. When in doubt, sit them out.
  • A licensed health care professional must clear the athlete to return to play in the subsequent days to weeks.

Currently, 40 states, (including Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and Washington, D.C., have passed youth concussion laws.

Ten years ago, the NFL helped endow a non-profit organization called USA Football. With the CDC and other medical and football experts, USA Football created the only nationally accredited coaching course in the history of football. Tens of thousands of coaches have completed the course. This collaboration provides educational resources, including:

  • Free concussion education and management resources, including dozens of articles, downloadable documents and videos.
  • Free educational materials about hydration, conditioning, tackling techniques, nutrition, protective equipment, injury prevention and emergency care, and general player health and safety. Materials include articles, videos and other resources.
  • The first online youth football coaching course, which includes comprehensive quizzes encompassing concussion education and management, heat and hydration preparedness, tackling techniques and equipment fitting guidelines. The course has helped train more than 80,000 youth coaches.
  • The promotion of safe and healthy play through more than 100 annual football training events and national campaigns.
  • An instructional video series to aid coaches in teaching players how to tackle properly.

There is also a critical need for more certified athletic trainers for youth and high school sports. According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, in 2010 only 42 percent of high schools had access to certified trainers who were trained in concussion care.

As a sport that is on the national stage and under the spotlight, we are working to make a difference. Innovations in research and education today will improve safety in the sport tomorrow and for future generations in all sports.