by Daniel Goldberg
LINDEN – Earlier this month, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement in a case brought on by 4,500 former players. The suit alleged that the NFL concealed the long term dangers of concussions in an effort to avoid scrutiny and as a result many former players are suffering from neurological impairments and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Since 2011, the NFL has made strides to prevent these chronic brain injuries by attempting to modify the violent tackles that have led to concussions. Specifically, the league has begun to fine players who they feel use their helmets as a weapon or lead with their helmets when making a tackle. One of the most notorious players in the NFL, James Harrison, was fined over $120,000 between 2011 and 2012 for intentionally violent hits on QB’s and receivers. Many have argued that the NFL has been startlingly inconsistent on its rulings of what is a hit worthy of a fine and what is not. The league has maintained that these hits are evaluated on a “case by case basis”.
It does seem that the NFL’s efforts to educate players and de-emphasize helmet to helmet collisions has done a necessary good as the long term neurological health of both current and former players is paramount. The league has even gone as far as telling producers to downplay these hits on air when they occur and to limit replays of these gruesome hits. However, will these efforts lead to an unforeseen and unintended proliferation of other injuries?
In years past, players were taught to lower their shoulder and drive into the chest of the opposing player. More recently, defensive players from the pee-wee leagues through the NFL are now being taught to make tackles lower on the body to help avoid helmet to helmet collisions. Orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Chris Ropiak, of Union County Orthopedic Group in Linden, strongly agrees with this modified form of play, “It is great to see that the NFL has addressed concussion prevention and given a substantial amount of money towards further research as the long term effects of these repeated traumas is still being discovered. However, with hits now being made lower on the body, we may start to see an increased number of hip, knee and ankle injuries.”
Dr. Ropiak is no stranger to high level athletic injuries and has been on the medical staff for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Los Angeles Sparks, and USC football. “Players are getting bigger and faster every year while the hits are not getting any softer,” says Dr. Ropiak. “The same level of impact and concussive force is still being applied to the body but just is a different area now. With tackles lower on the body, much of the force is going to be directed toward the hips, knees and ankles. These structures are prone to injury even in the highest level athletes”.
For Dr. Ropiak, the mechanisms of football injuries is a matter of simple physics. “NFL players are big, strong, and fast, but their ligaments are not necessarily stronger than an average person’s ligament. When an NFL tackler is coming in for the hit there is much more momentum and force at play than there is with a tackler in high school football,” says Dr. Ropiak. “An MCL or ACL injury usually occurs when the player’s foot is planted on the turf and his knee is struck from the side by a tackler. When the force of the impact exceeds the strength of the ligaments, that is when they tear.”
Players across the league have expressed mixed feelings about the modified tackling rules. During this preseason Dolphins TE Dustin Keller’s season was ended after he took a direct hit to the knee from Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. In an interview with USA Today, the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez said, “Hitting a defenseless player in the knee, that’s something we all dread as players. That’s my nightmare. Hit me in my head [instead].”
The Jets’ Kellen Winslow, Jr. echoed Gonzalez’s sentiments via Twitter, “”Here’s my point. “Concussion=missed time pass test your back, Lower Leg injury like DK’s (Dustin Keller) last night=done for season.”
However, Swearinger maintains that his hit was not only clean, but what is encouraged by the NFL. “I was making a hit playing football,” Swearinger said. “In this league you’ve got to go low. If you go high you’re going to get a fine.”
For players across the league it may come down to long term versus short term. In the short term, lower extremity injuries may keep them off of the field for weeks at a time or, in worst case scenarios, prematurely end careers. However, the long terms effects of brain injuries as a result of helmet to helmet collisions are something that can impact their lives long after their career is over.
The question still remains, how do you legislate a multi-billion dollar sport predicated on big hits? “There may be no real solution,” says Dr. Ropiak “Football is inherently a high impact sport and injuries are a part of the game. The key for the NFL is to educate players on how to minimize injuries and maximize safety.”
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