Fixing Concussions with Band-Aid’s: How Effective is the NFL’s Defenseless Receiver Rule?

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By Kevin Saum

Improving health and safety in football became a passion of mine after I suffered from second impact syndrome while playing in a high school football game and fell victim to the culture of toughness that exists in all sports. Despite the fact that football nearly took my life, to this day I still love the game and I do not regret one play from my 10 years of participation. Many of my fondest memories are from playing high school football and I credit the game and my coaches for making me the man I am today. Because of the intense passion I have for football, I become infuriated when I see professional players undermining the NFL’s attempts to make the game safer by taking cheap shots on defenseless receivers.

The mechanism of injury for New England Patriots tight end, Rob Gronkowski’s torn right ACL and MCL has generated a lot of discussion on the effectiveness of the NFL’s defenseless receiver rule. Rules protecting defenseless receivers were expanded and clarified after several violent helmet-to-helmet hits in week 6 of the 2010 season. These hits included Brandon Meriweather of New England on Todd Heap of Baltimore, Dunta Robinson of Atlanta on DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia and James Harrison of Pittsburgh twice on Cleveland Browns players. On this same weekend, Eric LeGrand of Rutgers was paralyzed while making a tackle on a kick off in a game against Army (I was on the sideline working as a student manager for this game). I’m sure the LeGrand Injury added to the NFL’s urgency to make football safer (or appear safer).

This past summer, I began researching health and safety initiatives in hazardous industries for my master’s capstone project in an attempt to translate best practices to the game of football. Employers in fields with high incident rates of injury (NFL’s rate is 100%) such as those in coal mining, construction and manufacturing utilize occupational health and safety management systems (OHSMS) to comprehensively and continually improve safety at each job site (Maese & Jenkins, 2013). The Occupational Safety & Health Administration often requires businesses in these hazardous industries to implement OHSMS’s. One of the most important aspects of the management systems is the process verification component because it establishes accountability and methods to assess the effectiveness of newly implemented safety programs. In addition, the process verification method is intended to manage any consequential health and safety risks that arise from changes in the safety program. I specifically mentioned in my paper that the NFL’s targeting rules could likely cause defensive players to over-compensate by tackling at the knees, therefore leading to an increase in knee injuries. Nearly two weeks after I submitted my project, Dustin Keller (Miami Dolphins Tight End) sustained a season ending knee injury in a preseason game against the Houston Texans. According to Texans defensive back, D.J. Swearinger, who inflicted the injury on Keller “’With the rules in this era, you’ve got to hit low,’ ‘If I would have hit him high, I would have gotten a fine. So I think I made the smartest play. I’m sorry it happened … Right now it’s just instinct. You see somebody come across the middle, you gotta go low. You’re going to cost your team 15 yards. You’ve got to play within the rules’” (Farrar, 2013). Other defensive players and coaches around the league express similar remarks and use the rules to justify these dangerous and unnecessary hits (Keim, 2013).

Most media outlets have focused on Gronkowski’s ACL and failed to mention that he also sustained a concussion on the same play after slamming his helmet into the turf. Not only did the defenseless receiver rules result in a season ending knee injury, it was unsuccessful in preventing the very injury it was intended to reduce. Gronkowski is among at least 41 NFL players who have had a season-ending knee injury this season, which is a 64 percent increase from 2011 and may be the result of defensive players aiming lower (Matusewzky, 2013). The NFL needs to rip-off the Band-Aid it placed in the rulebook on that fateful October weekend in 2010 and implement some form of process verification to audit existing safety rules because they are obviously not meeting their objectives. Most sports writers and commentators have agreed that hits below the knee (on defenseless players) need to be banned. Although I am not Merrill Hoge’s biggest fan due to his intense hatred for Tim Tebow, I do agree on the potential solution he proposed, which is to establish a target area (or “strike zone”) for defensive players. This target area spans from above the knee to below the neck (Matusewzky, 2013). All discussion surrounding this issue has focused on preventing injuries on offensive players. Fines and suspensions for illegal hits have resonated with defensive players in the NFL and they have altered their style of play. However, I foresee an even greater incentive for NFL players to play clean and hit within the target area. The following pictures show the moment of impact for four of the hits on defenseless receivers that led to knee/leg injuries this season. Pay close attention to the head placement of the defender in all four instances.

bruty(Gronkowski knee injury, Simon Bruty)

decker(Eric Decker knee injury, US Presswire)

cobb(Randall Cobb broken leg, Nick Wass)

keller(Dustin Keller knee injury, Scott Halleran)

As you can see, in every hit the defender has his head down while making the tackle, which exposes them to both head and neck injuries. If you watch football on TV, I’m sure you have seen commercials for the NFL endorsement of USA Football’s “Heads Up” program, which aims to teach young players proper tackling techniques in an attempt reduce head injuries. If you haven’t, here is a link to one of the commercials (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp5HMhEDdt0). NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell is interviewed about the importance of safety in football at the beginning of this particular commercial and he states, “You have to have the right fundamentals. You have to learn how to tackle safely and play the game safely”. The commercial concludes with multiple youth players saying “you have to hit with your head up”! I am obviously all for young athletes learning proper tackling techniques, but the NFL’s endorsement of this program appears to be nothing more than propaganda when their athletes continue to tackle with their heads down. This Washington Post Article provides a step-by-step example of a safely executed USA Football “Heads Up” tackle (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/sports/wp/2013/10/24/tackling-a-crisis/). Actions always speak louder than words and the players should practice what they preach if the NFL truly wants to save the game. Kids look up to NFL players and try to emulate their styles of play because they are considered among the best in the world. If NFL players continue to make tackles in this manner they will once again be undermining their very own safety initiative.

It is only a matter of time before an NFL, college, high school or youth player sustains a head or neck injury from utilizing this poor tackling technique on defenseless receivers. If defensive players have the accuracy to aim for the head or knees, it’s safe to assume that they also possess the ability to make tackles at the upper-thigh and torso. It’s easy for defensive players to take out receiver’s knees because there is no situation where they can be retaliated against. I would love to see how “tough” these defensive players are if the roles were reversed and they lined up at wide receiver. Football is a dangerous game and it will always be a dangerous game. However, there are injuries that can be prevented, and I am confident that ACL tears coming from hits on defenseless receivers below the knee is one of them. As I have pointed out, it is physically impossible to maintain safe tackling techniques when defenders target at or below the knees. Band-Aids can’t fix concussions or spinal cords injuries, so it is time the NFL take a more comprehensive approach to health and safety rules and hold themselves and their players accountable for executing and promoting safe tackling techniques.

Sources:

Keim, J. (2013, October 28). Brandon Meriweather rips marshall. ESPN NFL, Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/9893116/brandon-meriweather-washington-redskins-rips-brandon-marshall-vows-target-opposing-players-knees
Maese, R., Jenkins, S. (2013, March 16). NFL medical standards, practices are different than almost anywhere else. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/redskins/nfl-medical-standards-practices-are- different-than-almost-anywhere-else/2013/03/16/b8c170bc-8be8-11e2-9f54- f3fdd70acad2_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend
Matuszewski, E. (2013, December 10). Rob gronkowski’s knee injury spotlights nfl’s surge in acl tears. Bloomberg, Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-09/gronkowski-spotlights-nfl-s-60-surge-in-knee-injuries-from-2011.html

USA Football Heads UP:
http://usafootball.com/health-safety/how-to-tackle

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