New NFL Rule Changes Hit Concussions Where They Live

05/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The NFL owners met this week in Orlando. There was an ambitious agenda with some very high profile issues on the table including the just announced change to the over time rules for playoff games.

Perhaps more importantly the owners moved again to make rule changes to help avoid the worst consequences of hits to players' heads. Just announced on Wednesday, March 24 is an extension of an already existing rule that prohibits hits to a wide receiver's head and neck while he is considered defenseless. Commencing this season, if a player launches himself and uses his helmet, shoulder, or forearm to make contact to the head or neck area of an opponent, he will be flagged no matter what position the target's position on the field.

The owners have decided that players at all positions deserve the same protection. Philadelphia Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie said, "There's no reason not to protect these players. There's a history of potentially serious injuries in these types of collisions." The issue of concussions and more traumatic brain injuries suffered by players has moved from one that required endless study to a priority for the NFL.

I have posted here in the past on the NFL concussion problems and what can be done in a practical sense to protect the integrity of the game while lessening the effects of hits to the head. Recently I had a young man contact me who has focused squarely on the problems of the NFL and the world of neurological diseases.

Daniel Kain has spent three years studying football head injuries. During his tenure on law review (Rutgers Law Journal), he wrote a Note that speaks to the NFL's concussion policy as it existed before the watershed 2009-2010 Congressional hearings on the issue. Daniel assisted certain members of Congress in their preparation for the October and January head injury hearings, and is currently serving as an advocate for state concussion legislation.

Mr. Kain sent me his latest effort on the subject and I think it merits posting here. It details what Kain calls the NFL's fresh start:

Shortly after the October hearing, the NFL began what can be referred to as its fresh start on concussion policy. During the middle of the season, the NFL instituted the following changes: return-to-play decisions made by independent neurologists; resignation of NFL concussion committee co-chairmen (Ira Casson and David Viano); concussion awareness public service announcements; suspension of the NFL concussion committee's work; and the NFL's watershed concession that "[multiple] concussions can lead to long-term problems[.]"

CSTE Partnership

In the spirit of the 2009 holiday season, the NFL pledged to donate at least $1 million to support Boston University's Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. This action represents the NFL's most progressive effort to combat concussions. Not only did the NFL embrace the findings of independent scientists (CSTE), it also subsidized the research itself.

Selection of Concussion Committee1 Chairs

Last week, the league announced its selection of concussion committee co-chairs: (i) Dr. H. Hunt Batjer, and (ii) Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen. Unlike previous committee chairs, Batjer and Ellenbogen have no previous ties to NFL teams, and they will receive no compensation beyond expenses. This will hopefully eliminate conflicts that previously jeopardized the integrity of the committee's findings.

The respective resumes of Batjer and Ellenbogen indicate that the committee is heading in a positive direction. For example, Ellenbogen served as a key advocate for Washington state's Zackery Lystedt Law; the first state law requiring medical clearance for a young athlete suffering from a concussion. Many states have used the Zackery Lystedt Law as a template in drafting concussion legislation.

Endorsement of State Concussion Legislation

Lending further goodwill to the league's concussion policy is its endorsement and support of state legislation aimed at preventing head injuries in high school sports. State Representative Tim Briggs' office (D-PA) stated that trainers from both Pennsylvania based teams (Eagles and Steelers) provided full support of PA House Bill 2060 (concussion legislation). Similarly, the Redskins' GM Bruce Allen invited several high school coaches to attend an upcoming April workout in order to discuss concussion prevention and awareness.

Proposed Rule Changes

The NFL competition committee remains ahead of the curve in proposing rules designed to promote player safety. Last year, the committee banned wedge-busting tactics on kickoffs. This year, the league is considering the elimination of the three point stance, and instituting further protections for defenseless receivers/players. Critics argue that the league is stripping the game of its core attraction (collisions), but competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay responds by saying it is the league's responsibility to "make the game safer when we can."

2010 Concussion Summit

This June, the NFL will hold another critical summit on concussions for team medical staffs and NFLPA representatives. This conference will be similar to the 2007 summit in that the NFL will invite independent scientists to present cutting edge research. Players, owners, and fans will be watching to see whether the NFL amends the language of its pamphlet to players. If the NFL's recent concussion policy improvements serve as any indication, the new pamphlet to players will likely make full disclosure about the risks of sustaining multiple head injuries. Meaning, the league will hopefully reveal the findings of independent scientists like CSTE in the pamphlet itself.