The NFL Continues to Prioritize Its Bottom Line, Not Player Safety

By Jake Barach  MAY 31, 2013 11:12 AM

It's time for commissioners to start using their heads when it comes to concussions.

 


As the nutrition and sports science fields continue to develop, the process of building an athlete is becoming something of an art. This art, however, is not about style and attention to detail. It’s about size, brute strength, and speed.

Fans cheer as one-handed grabs get more ridiculous and the homeruns travel farther, but the bone-rattling tackles and the ever-faster fastball have resulted in more serious injuries, especially concussions, a problem in major league sports. 

Thus far, the MLB has taken a firm stance on player safety, mandating the use of the Rawlings (NYSE:JAH) S100 Pro Comp helmet. By opting for the new helmet, the MLB ensured its players’ heads were protected from baseballs going up to speeds of 100 mph, a huge improvement from the previous 68 mph maximum at which players could be considered safe. Initial player dissatisfaction over the slight bulkiness and additional 1.3 ounces of weight added by the new helmet style has largely subsided as players have come to see that the MLB has their safety in mind.

“If they're going to save your life when you're hit in the head, then it's a small adjustment you can make,” said the New York Mets Ike Davis to USA Today.

The NFL has taken precautionary measures too. It has moved the location of kickoffs five yards forward, prevented running backs from leading with their heads, and continually issued fines for tackles directed dangerously -- and illegally -- high.

By doing so, the NFL has largely made its players learn to play a different game than they have played throughout their entire careers. Kick returns are less frequent, and those returning kickoffs have less time to react to the opposing team bearing down on them. Runners will essentially have to retrain themselves not to lead with their heads, a tactic that some have always used to their advantage.

These changes are certainly intended to protect NFL players, however, if a new baseball helmet can defend players from balls traveling up to 32 mph faster than the old model, how is it possible that no change to the NFL helmet exists?

In actuality, a potential update to the NFL helmet has existed for a long time. The ProCap, a urethane foam mold intended to be placed atop current helmets, was prototyped by Bert Straus in 1987. In 1989, tests showed that dummies equipped with Straus’s product underwent impacts that were 30% less forceful on average than those faced by dummies not equipped with the ProCap.

While play style is a factor, both Steve Wallace and Mark Kelso, two players who had suffered their share of concussions while wearing the standard-issued Riddell helmets, obtained no further concussions once they adopted the ProCap.

It was with the help of an outside consultant who once represented Riddell that a panel not only rejected the mandatory adoption of the ProCap in 1995, but warned players that wearing it could result in death as a consequence of neck injuries, despite research suggesting otherwise.

The NFL essentially decided that the sanctity of a 25-year contract with Riddell, set to end after this coming season, was more valuable than player safety. Rather than adopt a product that protected players, the NFL rejected one that exposed its current producer's weaknesses.

The MLB, on the other hand, has been willing to try prototypes from smaller companies, such as Unequal Technologies’ padded hat for pitchers. Perhaps this open competition is why Rawlings, who has been the official supplier of the MLB since 1977, released its new helmet.

When a $9.5 billion-per-year industry like the NFL adopts such a protectionist policy, it removes the incentive for startups and the big name brands like Nike (NYSE:NKE) and Adidas (ETR:ADS) to innovate until just few years before an established contract runs out.

With professional sports being as popular as they are today, this could potentially stunt the growth of an entire segment of the sports equipment industry.

If an equipment supplier can break into the big leagues, colleges and high schools are sure to follow suit. While these lower leagues may go out and adopt the product on their own, millions of athletes may not receive the protection they deserve when they go out on the field, and hundreds of smaller companies seeking to provide this protection could go out of business.

Meanwhile, the NFL will be mandating that knee and thigh pads be worn by all players in the 2013 season. This will help prevent lower body injuries, and perhaps prevent a few concussions. While a leg injury may jeopardize a player’s ability to compete, repeated concussions can impact their ability to lead a normal life.

As of January, over 175 cases, accounting for over 3,800 players, have gone to court over head injuries.

It’s time for the NFL to open its eyes and open the doors for new businesses looking to solve the problem of player safety -- an issue that's been sitting on the sidelines for far too long.
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