Frantz: NFL needs to increase safety, not shut down operations

“Football’s bloodiest secret” screamed one headline. “How different are dogfighting and football?” demanded another. The real bombshell question came from the Web site of a weekly news magazine: “Ban the NFL?”

As evidence linking violent football collisions to long-term dementia mounts, the NFL is now being forced to re-evaluate the safety measures it takes when it comes to protecting players’ brains. League commissioner Roger Goodell was called on the carpet at a congressional committee hearing last week, which revealed the serious possibility that the federal government may revoke the league’s antitrust exemption unless it radically changes the way it handles player safety and care. This, in turn, has led to widespread speculation as to whether or not the most popular sport in America can continue to exist in its current form, particularly at the professional level.

While it is clear that action needs to be taken to reduce the number of head injuries that result from high-impact collisions, radical suggestions like banning the sport are ludicrous.

To eliminate an entire industry like the NFL on the basis of dangers inherent to the job would necessitate an end to coal mining because of black lung disease and collapsed mine shafts. There are thousands of occupations in this nation that may be considered too dangerous to undertake, but those who choose them understand they are taking calculated risks with their short and long-term health.

That is not to say that we should allow grown men to run full-speed into one another with no regard to their safety simply because they choose to do so, but some semblance of personal responsibility must remain in play.

The question should not be about eliminating the occupation, nor should it be one of radically changing the rules. Some have suggested replacing the current hard-shell helmets with updated versions of the old leather helmets worn in the early 1900s, believing that players would no longer block and tackle with their heads if they were encased only in leather or foam. This ignorant argument fails to account for a player simply falling down after a perfect shoulder tackle and striking his head on the ground, or taking an incidental knee to the temple in a pileup.

Yet, a redesign of the helmet is likely the best solution to the ongoing problem of concussions, brain injuries and long-term memory impairment. Rather than weakening the protection of the head as a deterrent to using it for contact, however, the focus should be on increasing it.

There are companies currently designing and testing helmets with soft exteriors, providing players with padding on the inside and the outside of the hard plastic shell. One such company has produced a helmet called the “Gladiator” and it features the same sort of hard rubber polyurethane substance of which car bumpers are made.

Regardless of the advances that may be made in protective equipment, players are still going to be injured playing football, just as assuredly as NASCAR drivers are going to crash. But the key is to minimize the damage to the driver by making the vehicles as safe as possible — not to shut down the track.

Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at bfrantz@sfexaminer.com.

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