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Football Head Injuries And The Ironic Impact of Helmets

It’s been nothing but scandals and bad publicity lately for the famously image-conscious NFL. The league is facing a “bounty” scandal (in which players were paid to knock their competitors out of games), a former player’s recent suicide (which may be linked, like others, to head injuries), and a lawsuit joined by over 1,500 former players accusing the NFL of understating the danger of concussions. With so much talk about head trauma, it’s easy to forget that football players face other injury risks. What are they?

A 1985 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association focuses on cervical spine injuries—and notes that ironically, this risk was worsened by improvements in other safety measures. The authors reviewed statistics from a football injury database and found an increase in spinal injuries due to “improved protective capabilities of the helmet-face mask unit.” In other words: Increased safety for players’ heads meant greater risk to their spines. That’s because improved head and face protection led to increased “use of the head as the primary point of contact in blocking [and] tackling.” To address these problems, many leagues introduced rule changes designed to reduce “spearing” (i.e., head-first) contact—but the findings are a reminder that enhancing player safety isn’t as straightforward as you might imagine, even when everyone’s playing by the rules.