Competition Committee Chairman and Atlanta Falcons CEO and President Rich McKay, NFL owners committee on health and safety chairman and San Francisco 49ers co-chairman Dr. John York and NFL head, neck and spine co-chair Dr. Richard Ellenbogen talked about health and safety issues during the special league meetings in Dallas on Dec. 12:
McKay: Today, we had a Competition Committee meeting with the Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the NFL Health and Safety Committee that Dr. York chairs. It is probably the first time we have had all of those three committees in the same room to talk through a lot of issues involving player health and safety and potential rule proposals for the year. It is a good forum to do it in.
In this instance, we decided we would start a little earlier in the year. Usually, we don’t start until February. We decided we would start at this meeting. We had an open forum. It was productive.
On how much the passing of two players the past two weeks affected the conversation:
McKay: That wasn’t the subject of our conversation.
York: That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very big concern. That is what I was trying to get from you because there are so many things going on. Those things are a big concern to the NFL, but in terms of the Competition Committee and Head Neck and Spine, I don’t think those fit into that particular category.
In terms of the owners and health and safety, I believe Commissioner Goodell and others will be talking to us more to formulate what steps we will take beyond where we are now.
Ellenbogen: Dr. York and I were in Zurich, and we came back energized with the concept that rules make a difference in safety. In Zurich was the International Concussion Consensus Committee a month ago. It is organized by FIFA. Put in perspective, this was about 300 million kids around seven continents playing sports.
York: This was the fourth of these conferences over the last 12 years.
Ellenbogen: It is only every four years. It is all of the concussion medical experts in the world. It is a small group of people. How do we make sports safer? Because it affects hundreds of millions. It is not a football issue; this is a 100 million people issue. Dr. York and I went. I gave a football talk and someone gave a soccer talk and someone gave a hockey talk. …
York: … International hockey, Australian rules football, boxing, tae kwon do and I am missing some — horse racing, equestrian.
Ellenbogen: Ninety percent of the jockeys in England get concussions. This was an eye-opening experience for us because this is an international problem not a national problem. The one thing that came out that was remarkable to me and Dr. York is that rules make a difference. You can make a sport safer by making rules that make sense that still make the game fun and interesting, and at the same time, they lower the concussion rate.
This international group was absolutely amazed at our ATC spotter in the press box. Soccer had the same experience that we did lowering the concussion rate by changing the rules. In FIFA, they lowered the concussion rate by getting rid of elbowing in the head playing soccer.
More than any media event you are referring to, there is a push around the world to work with people who know the sport — he (McKay) has forgotten more football than I ever knew — and say, “Is there anything we can do with statistics analyzing a game and make it safer but still make it the same game?”
On if rules advancing player health and safety are working:
McKay: You look at rules as ever-evolving. The fact that they may work today does not mean you are not going to change them in two days when the data or the plays you see on tape indicate you should. I feel very good about where the game is now. We have made a lot of changes in the last 15 years that have really led to a safer game, but we can make it even safer.
Rules are in place to try to put players in a position where they are not facing an unreasonable risk of injury. They are going to face a risk of injury. Ours is a contact sport and a tough sport, but our job as a rules committee is to make sure that we can create rules that try to eliminate the unreasonable risk of injury.
What is great about the injury data as it gets better and as we are able to have more communication about it is sometimes that brings to your attention situations that you would not have thought of just watching the game on tape. That is a good thing. It is a good exchange to have.
On if the committees are receiving more data than in past years:
McKay: Yes, yes we are.
Ellenbogen: The technology is better. What has interested the world is this video, the ability to analyze video. Mr. McKay wants to go through it systematically. If you can collect [data on] 10 concussions, you will see 10 different things, but the key is to string together the things we can do that will make those 10 concussions go away.
York: I will add that the NFL has been collecting injury and surveillance data for over 30 years. Thirty years ago, the data we collected and how we collected it is not how we are doing it today, and it won’t be the same way 10 years from now. No one ever thought 30 years ago that we would be looking at doing an electronic medical record system. An electronic medical record system is also going to help with the injury surveillance data as well. All of those things will help to give us more understanding of the game, safety and the ability to make alterations.
On the electronic medical record system:
York: It starts in the pre-phase with eight clubs next year.
On discussing a potential to eliminate kickoffs:
McKay: No, we talked about the injury data surrounding kickoffs. The way we looked at it committee-wise is we made a pretty substantial rule change two years ago. We have kind of had our own internal rule of when you make a rule change, let’s wait two years to see what the data really shows — Did we make a difference? Have we changed the injury numbers? What is the impact on the game? — and that is how we really look at it. We haven’t talked about the idea that has been brought up. I have no question that when we get to the offseason that idea will be fully vetted, as will a lot of them because they have been every year when we talk about the kickoff. One thing that we try to do a good job of as a membership is letting the data and the tape, meaning the way the game is played, drive the decision as opposed to the emotion of the moment.
On weighing kickoffs only on concussions or also on touchbacks and other factors:
McKay: Safety goes first. It may sound corny but it is true almost all of the time. Safety goes first, and the second thing is once you make the safety change, then you say to yourself what is the effect on competition, what is the effect on the game and how do we minimize that the most we can and still achieve the safety goal. The kickoff recommendation we made two years ago had involved many weeks of discussion on how to modify the kickoff. Quite frankly, we couldn’t come up with a better way than to simply move it [up five yards]. It wasn’t some novel idea. We just moved the kickoff five yards to reduce kickoff returns, but it was because we really couldn’t come up with a better way where we knew we could move the needle on the injury number and the concussion number. That is the change we recommended. It doesn’t mean somebody won’t have a more creative way to deal with it and for the evolution of it. That will be analyzed two ways: first, does it achieve the safety goal; and second, what is the impact on the competition.
On if rule changes were discussed:
McKay: Yes, we talked about a lot of the ones we will consider in the offseason, which include some low blocks from various plays we had. We talked about how we will go about that, which will involve the use of the tape, use of the data and then how we will get back together and where we are when we get through February, which is when our meetings are in Indianapolis. We meet together and then we meet with the union, and then we formulate what are called the “Preliminary Proposals.”
On if players have expressed frustrations about and discussions on adjusting rules for hits on defenseless receivers, specifically in reference to a recent hit on Cowboys WR Dez Bryant:
McKay: I think there is frustration. There always is when there is a rule such as that where you can get a flag when you think you are technically right. The way the rule is written and the rule will be written this way forever, I think, is we tell the official, “When in doubt, throw the flag.” We are going to lean toward safety. If you are uncertain, if it is close, throw the flag because we want to change the conduct. What that has done over the years is if you look at the way those hits were made five years ago versus today, you will have seen a change. You will see the target lowered. You will see more guys hitting in here [the chest] and you will see fewer guys hitting up here [references head and neck area]. That is what we have wanted and that is what we get. It doesn’t mean you don’t get a play where a guy gets hit in the chest and a flag comes out. It can happen because we are playing the game at full speed, but I think we all accept as players, coaches and everybody in the league that we will err on the side of safety when it comes to those hits.
Dr. York: This isn’t that particular play, but I think one of the things that you need to also understand and consider is that when these rules changed, this is a consideration of both the offensive and the defensive player. Quite honestly, if you look at year after year, the person delivering the below — whether it be a tackle or a block — gets injured more times than the person who’s getting hit. Regardless, you will hear from the fans and the defense that all of these rule changes are to help the offense or only to protect the offensive players. This is really to protect the defensive players, as well. They actually get hurt more often than the offensive player.
On changing the helmet:
Ellenbogen: There are a couple of issues here. There’s helmet technology and helmets protect against catastrophic injury. They don’t exactly protect against concussions perfectly. When you compare helmeted and non-helmeted sports, the concussion rates are pretty high in non-helmeted sports like rugby, Australian Rules football and so on. The culture change of getting players not to lead with the head started with that NFL poster and I believe it continues. It’s a constant evolution of ways to communicate that from pee wee to Pop Warner to NCAA to NFL, not to lead with your head. The culture change is going to take a little while. But everybody always says, “get rid of the helmets.” Unfortunately, getting rid of the helmet does not protect you against a concussion. Improving technology might help a little — working with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and the Department of Defense — and how you can get the helmet to absorb more energy. At the end of the day, it’s culture change and the fact that concussions are going to happen anytime your head hits the ground, or hits another object in any sport from bicycling to football.
York: We take this seriously. In fact in Rich [Ellenbogen] and [Dr.] Hunt [Batjer]‘s Head, Neck and Spine Committee one of the six subcommittees is equipment and sensors. The primary equipment we’re talking about is the helmet, and that is headed by Kevin Guskiewicz. That is probably the most difficult committee to sit on, in terms of time in trying to make something happen.
Ellenbogen: They spent millions [dollars] just this year. They’ve gone through peer review tests of the head system versus the mouthpiece sensors to see if they can track with the concussions. We’re testing the technology, the NFL is spending the money to test the technology and see if it gives any new illumination on the issue.
On if the Head, Neck and Spine Committee believes the NFL should have an official helmet deal:
McKay: The official helmet was a sponsorship deal way back when. I think the teams, at least from our perspective, and I’m pretty sure I speak for the teams; I don’t think any team gets caught up in the deal with Riddell with respect to recommending a helmet because it really is the individual players’ choice and a lot of them are driven by what they wore in college. I think we do recommend that they pay attention to the modern research that has been done by the subcommittee to make sure they’re wearing the most modern equipment they can wear. I don’t think anybody pays attention to the idea that there was a sponsorship deal.
On changing the facemask:
McKay: The facemask itself has been discussed and I bet that discussion comes back up as the years go forward. I think we’ve seen that players as they’ve gotten more comfortable using their helmet [hit harder]. The facemask has driven it, but so has the helmet itself and so has their training. That’s why part of the Competition Committee’s job is to legislate ways where they can’t use their helmet and that’s to Dr. York’s point: in the defenseless player rules, many of those rules are driven toward the defensive player and trying to protect that player from delivering a blow to an offensive player with their helmet. Often times, we get the defensive player that complains and says, “well, this rule is driven to protect the receiver and give him the middle of the field.” Our answer is, “no, it’s not. We’re trying to protect you and the offensive player.” Do I think the facemask is something we’ll continue to look at? I do.
– NFL Communications