Tuesday, March 17, 2015


One of the best young linebackers in the NFL, Chris Borland, retired today at the age of 24.

He retired because he was concerned about the long term effects of repetitive head trauma. This was a step he undertook proactively, unlike other plays who have essentially been forced to retire early on the recommendation of doctors.

I thought this was a courageous and difficult move.

In a larger sense, though, I didn't think this meant much, until I heard journalists closely associated with the NFL reacting with unnecessary intensity. Here are a few excerpts from Mike Florio:
Americans routinely assume far greater physical risks for far less money and fame than the risk/reward of playing in the NFL. Riding motorcycles without helmet, jumping out of airplanes, climbing rock walls, working as police officers, firefighters.

Well, that's completely nonsensical. All of those activities/professions involve physical risk, but they're not the focus. In football, for many positions, hitting and getting hit IS the job.

Florio wound up driving completely off the cliff (including a reference to a decapitated uncle--read the whole exchange here), but most interesting is why he went thermonuclear. It indicates to me that the NFL is deeply concerned about how Borland's retirement is perceived by people outside the league.

The real problem here, though, is not perception. It's that the problems around concussions can, at best, be slightly mitigated. None of them can be "fixed".

Why not? Well, here's why:
1. No real-time evaluation of concussions.
Until there's a real-time, conclusive test that correctly identifies 95% (at least) or more of concussed players, it's going to be impossible to manage on the sideline during games, no matter how many neurologists the league uses. The King-Devick test certainly shows promise, but it's not a panacea, even if the NFL were using it (they're not).
2. Improving helmet safety is extremely difficult.
There's head-on trauma, and there's rotational trauma. Adding padding to the helmet to improve absorption of head-on trauma makes the helmet heavier, which makes rotational trauma even worse. All kinds of things have been proposed (including magnets) to make helmets safer, but almost all of it is just speculation.

The bottom line is that it's incredibly difficult to protect someone's head when they collide with someone else at a high rate of speed and/or acceleration. It's such a complex issue that researchers can't even seem to agree on the testing protocol that would determine whether a helmet is safer.

I think the NFL can see, though, that they have to manage this effectively in a PR sense. The worst-case scenario for the NFL is that high schools start dropping football because they can't afford the insurance costs (which will rise steadily as more and more information information on repetitive head trauma becomes available). And the drumbeat to pay college football players is going to get much louder as people begin to better understand the kinds of long-term risks the players are taking.

There are a series of ripple effects that the NFL doesn't want, and they have to control perception of this issue.

They can't, though. This issue has escaped containment.

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