Concussions in football are reaching a critical stage. Players, especially in college football, are getting bigger and faster at a rate that helmet technology seems unable to keep up with. Force equals mass times acceleration. Get something big enough moving fast enough and run it into a person, and you generate more force that we can disperse and shield someone’s head from.
Now though, a new problem is coming up. A study has raised the potential that football is becoming so violent that you do not need to suffer a concussion to experience the long term effects:
The scans of the injured player showed as much damage as his teammates who endured routine levels of contact, suggesting to Bazarian and Zhong that extreme hits that made athletes’ vision foggy and eyes starry – telltale signs of concussions – weren’t necessary to cause damage to their brains. Instead, it suggested the hits players endured play-to-play and week-to-week could accumulate and affect the brain’s health. Imagine linemen colliding after each snap, a running back getting bumped while powering through a hole, or linebackers finishing off a play. Those plays – the bedrock of game action – could be adversely affecting a player’s health over time, the results suggested.
The science here is just getting started, but if this research is confirmed and reveals a widespread problem, there would need to be a fundamental change in how football is organized. Rules to prevent head-to-head collisions are of limited value if big hits are only part of the problem. One option would be to remove routine contact from football, but at that point it would be a different sport.
Instead, the challenge should be to look for ways to mitigate this damage caused by regular jostling. One common sense idea would be more rest in between games. But to have more rest, you need either fewer games or a longer season. A slightly longer season would yield another bye week or two, but what if the idea of a football season played in the fall was thrown out in favor of one played over the entire academic year?
A season played over the entire academic year would also mean changing practice limits. 20 hours of athletic activity over six days a week would be quite the grind over an entire academic year. The limits would have to be somewhere between the in-season limits and the offseason limits, something along the lines of 15 hours per week, maximum of 4 hours per day, and two required off days per week. Hopefully a longer season also reduces the pressure on student-athletes to engage in voluntary activity, which adds on another 20 hours for the average FBS student-athlete.
A competition schedule might have teams playing every other week, with the occasional game on back-to-back weeks and/or two weeks off (so half of the teams aren’t one schedule and half on the other). Even with a playoff that adds games beyond the current maximum of 14, there would be periods of extended rest.
A number of ancillary benefits are possible as well. A steady practice schedule that includes fewer hours per week of athletic commitments could help academics. A longer season frees up television slots on the weekend, reducing the number of midweek games. With games every other week, coaches might have better work-life balance and more time to recruit.
Tradition would definitely be thrown out the window and there’s a chance that year-round college football would not be as great a commercial success as it might seem given the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the sport. But if we’re serious about the health and welfare of student-athletes, any idea that maintains the core of the sport and reduces long-term damage needs to be explored.
These ideas are a long way off though. First more study is needed to confirm this phenomenon and measure the extent of it. Assuming it is, the NCAA and researches should figure out a way to test different competition and practice schedules to see if it makes a difference. Perhaps a shorter season with a longer offseason is better. Or perhaps the key is to reduce cumulative damage by having longer periods between each game. And if that’s the case, the membership should be prepared to take even the radical step of playing football in the spring.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.