Monday, February 9, 2015


By Ronald Fox  

NOTE:  Consider this Part IV of my series on head injuries in football.  The other three parts were: Head Injuries in Football: The NFL Fumbles, Head Injuries in Football: The NFL Finally Responds, and Head Injuries in Football and Domestic Violence.

In previous posts I wrote about lawsuits filed by pro and college football players against their leagues and associations for brain injuries incurred as a result of head collisions. The reach has now been extended to the high school level. A former high school quarterback is suing the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) for not doing enough to protect players from concussions. This is the first case where legal action has been taken for former high school players as a whole against a group responsible for prep sports in a state. As injuries and lawsuits mount, perhaps football associations and leagues will finally get serious about changing the one thing likely to make the game safer: the way tackles are made.

The lead plaintiff is Daniel Bukal, a star quarterback until 2003 at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, a Chicago suburb. According to the 51-page suit, Bukal received multiple concussions and still suffers frequent migraines and some memory loss. Like most states, Illinois didn’t have any concussion protocols in place when Bukal played, and, according to the suit, current protocols remain deficient. The class-action lawsuit is asking the IHSA to strengthen rules regarding what it says is “an epidemic” of head injuries at the 800 high schools it overseas. It is not seeking specific monetary damages.

Such litigation may be only the beginning, as similar lawsuits targeting high school associations in other states are pending. It’s probably just a matter of time before lawsuits emerge for youth leagues. The point to stress here is that there is growing awareness of the serious risks of playing the game of football, risks that organized football has not been adequately managing.

This isn’t to suggest that lawsuits alone will lead to significant changes in how the game is played. So far monetary penalties have not proven effective in compelling change. Concussion protocols have been instituted, but it appears incidences of brain and spinal cord injuries have not declined. Heads continue to be used as a weapon in making tackles. Ironically, improvement in helmet technology, making them safer hence giving players a false sense of security, has actually encouraged their use as a hard-hit mechanism. Along with modern faceguards, which protrude out several inches, head gear has become a formidable weapon. Young football players watch highlights of crushing head hits and ask, why not?

Evolution of Football Helmets Over the Years

Teams at all levels of football have been remiss in not teaching players how to tackle without using their heads. Big head hits have become part of the culture of modern football. It wasn’t always this way. Look at films of football games decades ago, when players wore flimsy leather helmets, and you’ll notice how differently tackles were made. Hands and bodies were used and players targeted the chest. Head hit injuries were rare. Now many players lead with the head.  Also, look at rugby, a physical contact sport where players don't wear helmets; the result: virtually no head injuries.

What needs to change is the culture of football. Players must be taught how to make tackles by driving through the chest. Crown of helmet hits must be more severely penalized—including the possibility of suspension from the game or games, and possibly even from the league for repeated offenders. The current NFL fine system of $21,000 for a first helmet hit offense and $42,000 for a second is a joke. Stiffen penalties and players will get the message. New head hit rules in the NFL are already leading some players to make adjustments to their games.

Transforming the technique of tackling must be accorded a high priority at all levels of the game. This is a far better approach to protecting players than concussion protocols (though these are important), developing safer helmets, or fining millionaire players for particularly egregious helmet hits.

Such a change will not lessen the appeal of the game for fans that love big hits. It will not soften the game, as many fans, broadcasters, and present and former players lament. Big hits will still happen, only without leading with the head. One would think that players would welcome such a change. After all, a head or spinal cord injury can shorten a player’s career, costing millions of potential dollars and possibly even a life. What player doesn’t want a lengthy career and a healthy post-career life?

I’m not sure what it will take to get leagues to take the head injury problem seriously enough to institute significant changes to the football culture. More evidence of post-concussive brain disease, successful lawsuits, reluctant insurers, publicized congressional hearings, public outrage, and, most importantly, a player revolt would seem necessary conditions to force change. Whether they’d be sufficient is another matter. Football associations are notoriously conservative. Resolving the head collision problem is a moral obligation. I think leagues and players will eventually find it a financial one as well.

Head Injuries in Football and Domestic Violence


  1. First, congrats on a great series of articles that laid out the issues beautifully.

    I tend to think that the issue of head injuries is an existential threat to football. When most Mom's and Dad's think the game is too dangerous to play, the supply of players will eventually dry up and cause a huge decrease in its popularity. If the threat is that great, changing the "culture of football" seems like an absurdly easy step. Hopefully the NFL will figure this out before it leads to a big decline.
    One thing you didn't mention as part of the solution to this problem is the use of padded helmets. Back in the 1980's Sports Illustrated ran an extensive article about head and neck injuries and one of the suggestions made to reduce the problem was the use of padded helmets. Some colleges started using them in practice, but for some reason this step wasn't implemented in the NFL. Had the NFL taken this step they might not be in the position they are today because padding the helmet makes it less of a weapon, reducing the incentive to use it. Well, it's never too late and I suggest they revisit this as part of further reform.

  2. Your series was extremely well written and presented without bias.
    A few thoughts come to mind.

    I don't believe much is going to change because it's always about the money , and there are hundreds of millions at stake. The owners will stick with the NFL because they are just pimping out their athletes for $$$$.
    The American public is so besotted with the Roman gladiator- like atmosphere of football that they don't care.

    The problem of traumatic brain injury cannot be solved by improving the helmets. That is like saying a .38 revolver injures but is inaccurate so why not improve or increase the size of the weapon!!
    There is only one solution, AND THAT IS TO GET RID OF THE HELMETS!

    Rugby is an extremely physical sport played with no pads and no helmets.
    Traumatic brain injury is not an issue. Of course there are the incidental head collisions but the international rugby board has very strict rules as to the handling of on field concussion. The player has to go off and be examined and cleared by a neurologist before returning to play that or any other time. Spiking is handled as a very serious offense usually with a red card (the team then plays one man short), and with multiple game suspensions.

    The athlete's health long and short term, not the game, must come first, otherwise we will continue to see the sad deterioration in the mental health of too many young men. Thank you for your in-depth and insightful exploration of this very sad yet pervasive issue.


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