Monday, August 1, 2011

Ivy League takes on Head Trauma to Save Football from Itself

Two a day practices begin in three days for college football teams. The start of bone crunching practices is a good time to remember clearly documented threats football contact poses to the human brain and cognitive functions of players. Saving the sport in all its brutal beauty requires addressing head trauma for moral and legal reasons. The Ivy League has taken the bull by the horns and limited the number of full contact practices to two per week during season and three during pre-season. Why?

The American university enshrines the mind at the center of its aspirations. The university nurtures knowledge, creativity and reflective thinking. Without a strong mind, a university education makes no sense given its role to shape knowledge, imagination and reflective practice. As stewards of the gifts the mind universities should take the lead in addressing the plague of brain injury resulting from football.

We know without a doubt that long-term football contact not only cripples knees, legs and shoulders, but cripples the brain. The range of cognitive impairment afflicting ex-football players is staggering. We used to think that having your "bell rung" was part of the game; now we know it slowly changes the electro-chemical constitution of the brain. It precipitates vicious protein build up that slowly congests neural functioning and destroys cognitive and physical capacities.

It initially appeared that the problems might be associated only with concussions, but the research now finds the damage grows as much from repetitive contact over time.  The vast majority of contact occurs not in games, but in practices. The type of contact in games may rise in intensity and players may play through more pain, but the vast number of contact points that cumulative reshape the brain occur in practice.

Practice, especially at college, matters immensely. Players compete constantly for playing time. The depth charts are far more fluid in college than professional ball. The number of players is larger. The pool size and permeability of starting line ups intensifies practices. Coaches still, for very good reasons, watch full contact practices to get the full measure of the talent but also the decision-making players under the speed and pressure of full contact competition.

Practices can be brutal and designed to cull, weed out and isolate the weak and unprepared as well as reward the committed and prepared. This is integral to the excellence of achievement in any sport, any activity for that matter.

The Ivy regulations will limit in season contact practices to two per week, not five. It will limit the contact during preseason to one per day not two, and during spring it will permit three per week. The Ivy League effectively cuts the number of potential repetitive brain impacts by 40-50 percent. This is a             GOOD THING.

College student athletes are not professional athletes but still students. As long as the university believes in the student aspect; our schools have strong moral obligations to protect and nurture the quality of mind. It makes no moral sense to place students activities over time that we now know will destroy the physical foundation of the purpose of the University.

The chorus of naysayers will claim that people want to turn football players into wimps or to sissify the sport. You can hear talk show ex-players already complain that modern professional practices largely consist of morning walk-throughs and afternoon partial pads. In "my day" they had brutal ugly confrontational two a days of 3 hours each in full pads at game intensity. They might be right. But right now modern football players are bigger and faster with more efficient muscle mass and technique than even fifteen years ago. A modern 1A offensive tackles ranges from 6'4" to 6' 8" and 290-350 pounds while a guard would be 6' to 6' 5" and 280-330 pounds. That is 30 to 40 pounds heavier than twenty years ago.

This size+speed+strength equation equals far greater force impact. So you add up mass impact that are significantly greater with the additional number of contacts, and this amplifies the cumulative head trauma. This also increases the number of injuries that accumulate over the course of a season leading to attrition. It could be a win-win for coaches and players and you can see some of this coming up in how the NFL union is opposing the lengthened season but also negotiating over controlling the nature of practices and workouts required.

A study quoted in the New York Times found that a season of practice time will generate 2500 collisions that have a G-force of 50-79. It will create 300 collisions with concussion range G force of 80-119 and 200 collisions with ranges above 120 Gs. Doctors compare the last to hitting a concrete wall at 40 miles per hour. Regulations like the Ivy League can cut the number of concussive impacts by 42 percent and keep players fresher as well as minimize other physical attrition that occurs.

The Ivy League is not the SEC or Big10 or Big East and they will not change easily unless forced to by civil litigation. But the Ivy decision has created a laboratory to test if these changes can lower the dangers of head trauma. This will give the NCAA and players and doctors better data to move the process along. No big league conference will change on its own because they all fear handing over a competitive advantage to other conferences. But a BCS or NCAA wide change could grow from the data that Ivy league wil help generate.

I do not want football to become a sentence to to limited mind and brain function. It is appalling for universities to be a party to this and the Ivy League’s efforts give college football a chance to think hard about dealing with head trauma and the integrity of the mind.

1 comment:

  1. Good information, how about this 2011 NFL season. Saints gave a lesson to the Giants on the MNF.