New Step to Stopping Concussion After-Effects

Doc Bear illuminates one of the latest developments in concussion-related player safety—sideline spotters.

During the February 2015 Super Bowl, Kam Chancellor crashed into Julian Edelman with a helmet to helmet hit. Edelman was staggering, but he was left in the game anyway. He caught a three-yard TD pass later in the same drive.

Former Cleveland Browns QB Colt McCoy had a similar incident in a 2011 game that ended up appointing independent athletic trainers as ‘spotters’ during games. Just as teams are now providing independent neurologists on the sidelines, the NFL now uses ‘spotters’ to watch for possible concussions.

Edelman’s incident was the result of the Patriots using their hurry-up offense and the spotter not being able to get in touch with the sideline quickly enough. The call was made to check Edelman—but it couldn’t get through in time. The new rulings should reduce or eliminate that problem.

Because of the Edelman incident, the monitoring program was tweaked this past offseason. Hired spotters now watch the game both on the field and on monitors. They can call down to the sideline and talk to trainers and doctors. They can also call a medical timeout to remove a player from the game, so that the player can be properly evaluated.

That’s what should have happened with Edelman. They can tell an official the player’s number. They can even spot a player who’s avoiding being checked by the concussion protocol—one who’s been hit, but avoids trainers, coaches and doctors once on the sideline. Some players will always try that gambit.

Every spotter has to have at least 10 years of experience as an athletic trainer, with current board certification by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. They are required to have experience in collegiate or professional sports. He or she cannot have experience as the head athletic trainer covering games, or in evaluating players for brain traumas, to prevent professional conflicts.  

In 90 percent of concussions, the symptoms will disappear on their own within minutes, after which the protocol they go through won’t catch the injury. That’s potentially a huge concern—we know that multiple minor brain traumas over time cause every bit as dangerous a problem as a single, more major concussion.

The right to call a medical timeout is essential to making sure that a player is safe quickly. Just because they can pass the protocol doesn’t mean that they’re safe or uninjured—a problem that we have yet to solve.

The NFL has taken up the baton on the concussion issue. I used to call for independent neurologists on the sidelines. That’s now happening. I pounded the table for tacking clinics. Poor tackling approaches have been an issue from Pop Warner football to the NFL.

Now, programs like the Pete Carroll program for safer tackling are being taught all over the U.S. His approach takes the head out of the way and uses the shoulder at the numerals. It’s a leverage-based system, which prevents, or reduces, knee hits and tackles as well as head to head contacts.

USA Football has a similar approach. It’s called Heads Up, and has both Heads Up Blocking and Heads Up Tackling programs. Both are essential to a young player, who only knows what he’s taught. The program includes a coaching certification and a Player Coach Safety attribute, which brings the player in on his own healthcare with the help of his coach.

Both player and coach become clear on the truths and inaccuracies about concussions and brain traumas. Since the human brain doesn’t mature until around age 25, this is as important to NFL players as to the student athlete.

The Heads Up website requires a small fee to ‘join’, or just view the material. Since it’s copyrighted, that’s understandable. It isn’t a high fee—I paid it as a gesture to the players whose lives have been destroyed by not having this information. It needs to be taught to the young and repeatedly emphasized in the colleges and the NFL. The longer you’re in the game, the more traumas you're exposed to.

The NFL gets a lot of players in their early twenties—or, like Ronnie Hillman, at 20. They’re physically immature. Their brains haven’t even matured (until age 25). If you throw a series of head hits at that point, the odds of problems later in life go up dramatically.

We have a national problem here—it affects kids, youths, young adults and adults, at every age and income bracket. It affects people in car accidents, kids playing soccer, skateboarders and snowboarders. And, football is one of the biggest offenders.

Basic head protection is part of a good direction. A helmet has been developed by the military, called the `Gladiator’. It’s an off-shoot of a new military helmet, tweaked to fit the NFL needs. It’s downside is that it’s heavy—it’s made of reaction-molded polyurethane. The outside is slightly soft, which testing has shown helps it slide off of hits.

That has to be precise—too soft and it gets sticky. The physics of this issue go far beyond what we’ve used in the past. On the Gladiator, they had to solve the issues of elastic versus inelastic collisions, as well as “Complex Modulus = f (Rate of deflection, Young’s modulus, % compression).”

I’ve seen at least one new helmet, based in a different technology, at least every month. Some months I’ve seen 3 or 4 new options. Currently, the NFL has helmets graded from 1-4 in terms of their ability to prevent head injuries. Like hockey back in the 1960s and 70s, what the players wear is up to them.

Rationally, knowing that you’re putting a player in the least effective helmet permitted is ridiculous, given what we know about brain traumas. At some point, the league will have to mandate what is the best helmet on the market—and enforce it being worn. It won’t be cheap, but the savings in long term health issues for which the league is responsible will force that change. I’m not holding my breath, but in time it will have to come.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @alloverfatman.

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