Over the last handful of years, a familiar theme has emerged concerning America's most popular game. Thanks to more attention being paid to the negative effects of concussions, more and more people have voiced concerns about the dangers of football. From players retiring early due to fear of injury, ESPN removing the 'JACKED UP' segment from its Monday Night Football program, to even the President of the United States saying he'd be concerned if he had a son that wanted to play football.
The combination of these factors has led to various pundits semiannually proclaiming that football will eventually die off.
There's good reason for this pessimism. Some studies estimate that youth football participation has dropped off by up to 27-percent. The NFL is constantly rewriting its rule book to limit how defense can be played. Go watch clips from a game played in 2006 and count how many of the hits would be illegal in 2016, it can be staggering.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell is the ongoing lawsuits between former players and the NFL over what the league knew about concussions. As more revelations are made about how harmful multiple concussions are to a player's health, it's easy to see where the anxiety over football's future comes from. But what if there was a way to fight back against the health concerns and try to ensure the future of our favorite pastime? So far, the narrative is all about how dangerous football is, not what can be done to make it safer. One company has started its contribution toward making the game safer.
Perhaps the most iconic piece of sports equipment is the football helmet made by Riddell. Riddell supplies helmets and pads from Pop Warner to the NFL and is as synonymous with the league as Louisville Slugger is with Major League Baseball. Last week Riddell launched the second year of their Smarter Football campaign as an effort to make football safer for all involved. Smarter Football offers new technology which helps coaches tell when a player has been hit. There is a sensor located in the player's helmet that is paired up with a wireless handset on the sideline. When a player is hit, the handset tells the coaches on the sideline that the player suffered a hit and that they should be evaluated for an injury.
Obviously equipment like this costs money, so Riddell set up a grant where programs could apply for the new gear. In total, Riddell donated $100,000 of new equipment in grants to various organizations around the country that showed the best ways they advance the idea of playing smart football. One such winner was the Juniata Thundercats, an organization based in the Philadelphia area that may offer a glimpse into a way of protecting football for the future.
One of the main struggles of the Thundercats has been having enough players healthy to compete in a game. Additionally, co-founder and coach Lee Taggart, a former college football player, wanted to make sure the game was played safely since he had suffered a concussion in college and has seen teammates deal with them as well. At first, Juniata started experimenting with limiting the contact in practice. "I always remembered seeing more injuries in practice than in games, so I knew that if I ever became a coach, I would try to limit player-to-player contact, particularly in practice," Taggart said. Last year Taggart's partner at the Thundercats, Bryant Paden, was searching the web and found the information about Riddell's campaign and forwarded it to Taggart. At this time Taggart was finishing his Master's of Bioethics Degree from The University of Pennsylvania. For his master's thesis he chose to examine the moral obligation that the NFL has to disclose head trauma research information to players and the ethical dilemmas faced by sports physicians who make the return to play decisions. Here now was a grant that was would allow him to effectively protect his players and provide new gear for the season, a perfect match.
Since being approved for the grant, the responses have been resounding. "The parent response has been very positive because they are generally excited about anything that is making the game safer for their children. Parents have been inundated with negative information about the dangers of football, with no real preventative solutions. So being a part of an organization that has been recognized for our commitment to smarter football has been a tremendous comfort to the parents," Taggart told BTSC.
But the real impact lies in the future of this movement. Taggart explained how the lasting effects of the campaign can change every level of football: "Traditionally information and techniques in football have exhibited a trickle-down effect from the NFL, to college, to high school and then to little league. We hope to be a part of the reversal of information flow from little league up to the NFL. We need to start focusing on the safety of the youth players, who are unquestionably the most vulnerable participants in the game. We must indoctrinate them with safety habits that they can internalize as their bodies mature and the game simultaneously speeds up."
It's not a stretch to see the scenario above play out. As players, and their parents and coaches, become used to a certain level of safety being met, it puts pressure on each subsequent level to implement the new technology and limited practices that Juniata is using. Juniata is just one team in one city, as the Smarter Football campaign grows players all across this country are going to be brought up playing football safer. Soon people will be wondering if a youth league in Philadelphia can use this technology, why can't Notre Dame or the Pittsburgh Steelers? It wouldn't be a surprise to see this technology be at every level of football within the next ten years. The idea has the potential to reduce the drop off rates seen in youth football as parents see leagues take their child's well-being seriously.
The Smarter football campaign is only in its second year. There is still a lot of research that has to be done into other preventative measures, the right treatment for injuries, and even more technological improvements that can be made for football. Risk will always be a part of football, but there are ways to mitigate risk as much as possible, and by doing so ensure the survival of football.