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Designing Away Injury

May 7, 2012

In my previous post, I mentioned that there may be rules based measures to reduce the rate of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) in the NFL and other contact sports. I figured that I should also take a first pass attempt at describing some possible design solutions to that problem.

This is purely a design brainstorming exercise, I’m not suggesting that any of these rules changes would be actual solutions to the problem. Part of my argument in the previous post was that we don’t have enough experience in sports design to be able to predict what the long term effect of rules changes like these would be. I stand by that, but I feel that it’s important to illustrate the point of what kinds of rules-based approaches might be possible. I’ll also note how each solution is supposed to work, and note any shortcomings of each one if possible.

Eliminate the 3-point stance.

This is one of the solutions mentioned in both the Laskas and Gladwell articles I linked to previously. Assuming that a much of the  worst damage comes from the initial contact of line-men on the snap, we might be able to decrease the force of the impact by eliminating the down ready position for linemen, and have them start every snap as is done in kickoffs. This would require a pretty drastic re-working of the rules on the line. All the rules around false starts would need to be modified . Also, some kind of special consideration would have to be made for the center, who would needs to be down regardless. This is the kind of change that seems fairly simple, but that would likely have wide-ranging and unpredictable effects.

Increase the width of the neutral zone.

Assuming once again that most of the damage comes from the initial contact just after the snap, we might be able to resolve that slightly by increasing the distance between the offensive and defensive lines. While more distance would theoretically give them more room to build up speed, I suspect it might have the opposite effect. Currently, line-men put a lot of their energy into shooting forward out of the three-point stance, like a runner coming out of starting blocks. Often, they’re assuming that the contact with the opposing line will keep them more or less vertical. Line-men would be forced to raise their centers of gravity so that they can cover another stride without toppling forward.

This could be used in combination with the first idea, or separately. Like the first idea, this would require a fairly drastic re-working of other rules. Short yardage would be much easier to come by, so it may even be necessary to increase the distance required for a first down. Strategy would also have to adjust, as goal-line stands become much more difficult. This might have the side effect if increasing the average point total per game, which may be seen by many as a positive under the theory that more points are more exciting.

Decrease the width of the neutral zone.

Along the opposite end of the previous concept, we could also close the neutral zone into a rugby-like scrum. While there isn’t much room there, a line-set position could require that linemen make physical contact with the opposing line prior to the snap. The line would become more like a rugby scrum or, less charitably, like a sumo match. There are a number of outstanding questions along the lines of this plan. How would 3-4 coverage work in this system, or otherwise, how would a blitzing middle-linebacker be treated?

Improve drug testing and enforcement and / or institute weight limits.

The injuries in the NFL seem to be more prevalent today that in previous eras. This may be due to better reporting, better medical care (thereby extending careers), or any number of similar considerations. Alternatively, it may just be that the players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. Some of this may be due to the use of steroids. Many people believe the NFL is essentially complicit in the use of performance enhancing drugs by its players, since bigger players and bigger plays tend to draw bigger crowds. If the size of these players truly are a major factor in the brain-trauma rate, better enforcement is one avenue to reduce that risk.

Similarly, but more extreme, one could argue that the NFL should determine a “safe” weight for players based on muscle mass and collision data. Players could have periodic weigh-ins throughout the season that they would have to meet in order to play. Would this be an unfair infringement on the players’ rights? Possibly, but it’s possible that increase safety would make some kind of enforcement amenable to the NFL Players’ Union.

Weaken / ban helmets.

This is another concept that’s been tossed around a bit in the literature about brain trauma in sports. The argument goes that as helmets become stronger, players compensated by playing more less carefully. Safer equipment lends the players a sense of indestructibility. They’re more likely to lead with their heads, more likely to make helmet-to-helmet collisions, and generally more likely to play dangerously, because they know the helmets will take much of the impact. Since the medical literature suggests that the problem is less about skull injury than the contact of brains against the inside of the skull, reducing helmet strength would force players to slow down to where less damage would be done.

Due to the public relations perspective, this is probably the least likely option to be successful. Even if it would lead to a safer game in the long run, people prefer the illusion of safety in the short run when given the choice. Also, since modern players learned to play the game with existing equipment, it would have to be a long-term plan, probably gradually phasing in weaker equipment from the high school level, to college, to pro. The P.R. nightmare of telling parents that their 16 year old kids should wear inferior helmets would be intractable.

So, there’s a handful of ideas on how rules changes to the NFL, rather than technical improvements, might attempt to alleviate some of the risk of C.T.E. As I mentioned, these are all very much first passes at the problem, but illustrate the kinds of solutions that might be considered. Please comment if you feel I’ve ignored something, have a great idea of your own, or have any other opinions on this piece. The best part of these kinds of design brainstorms are the feedback and conversations that come out of them.

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