However, the increasing concern over head injuries and concussions has kept the league from doing a victory dance. With young talent like former Niners linebacker, Chris Borland and ex-Packers wide receiver, Adrian Coxson, retiring at 24 and 23, players’ safety has shot to the top of the priority list.
Ask NFL’s Senior Vice President of Health and Safety, Jeff Miller, though, and he will gladly outline the positives that have come from countless safety issues. From implementing new technology for better play-by-play review to landing a neurotrama consultant on-site, Miller breaks down the league’s latest protocols and expands on its Health and Safety report, aimed at making the NFL’s concussion drama a thing of the past.
VIBE: Last year the league saw a big decrease in player’s risks of head injury during a game. In your opinion, what has been the most effective change since implementing and enhancing current protocol?
Jeff Miller: There’s a number of different additions or changes to the game that probably can best be summarized by talking about the culture change as it relates to head injuries in football. There’s been a number of rule changes that have taken the head out of the game of protective, defenseless players. The players have adapted to those changes really well and the coaches have adapted really well to those changes as well in terms of teaching the right techniques. As a result of that, we’ve seen a decrease in concussions over the last three years of 35% and a decrease in concussions caused by helmet hits in that same time frame of 43%. And while those rule changes and culture change have occurred, we’ve also added a number of other elements to the game including independent spotters to identify players who need assistance, unaffiliated doctors on the sideline to help with the evaluation of concussions, video boards on the sideline so that team positions can view particular injuries and the use of tablets and electronic medical records so that the positions have it at their fingertips, a player’s medical history, including his concussion history and the scores on his baseline test. And other things that can help the team position and unaffiliated doctors make a good analysis and evaluation of that player as it relates to concussion so while we’ve seen the concussion numbers go down, as that culture change has taken hold, we’ve also increased the amount of attention on medical effort uniformed in the protocol and added other elements to the field to make sure that we’re capturing the injuries when they occur.
Looking at cases like former Niners linebacker, Chris Borland, and ex-Packers wide receiver Adrian Coxson who have had to retire at very young ages because of head trauma concern, do you feel like there should be additional protocols or rules in place for players who may be in their early or mid ’20s?
Well I think that the rule changes that have been made to the game—there’s been almost 40 rule changes over the last ten years that relate to player health and safety—have made our game safer and the addition of independent medical experts, as related to concussions, and the technology improvements that we’ve made have made the game safer overall. And players who are playing today are benefiting from that. Now, that doesn’t suggest that we’re done. We’ll continue to look at the game, our competition committee and our owners health and safety committee will continue to get together looking at medical data, injury trends, injury statistics, and look for ways to continue to improve the health and safety of our sport as well as [continuing] to invest a significant scientific research report to try and advance new materials, new equipment and other things that will better protect players. So there’s still a lot more that needs to be done and will be done but I think that they’re seeing an improvement in players’ safety now and will continue to see those improvements over the next few years.
In a past interview, you said that there was “a cultural resistance.” Do you feel like there are emotional factors to also consider when it comes to players potentially denying that they have a concussion until a teammate points out a problem?
I think that it has to be a cooperative effort among those who are implementing the rules, those are identifying the injuries and those who may have suffered an injury to accept the culture where it’s okay to talk [about] assistance where it’s needed. And we’ve seen some of that. We’ve seen some, many examples now, where players, or you can see it in the games, ask for help from a teammate who they think may have suffered a hit and need assistance. We’ve seen it where our officials, who are trained to do this, are looking to help players who may need it and those are positive, very positive steps. I think as the culture change as it relates to these injuries continues to take hold, you’re going to see more of that. And as our players are more educated about the signs and symptoms of concussion and head injury, which they are, they’ll be able to self-report with greater frequency. Those are all positives in our welcome development but at the end of the day, it’s going to have to be a cooperative effort and all parties are going to do their part for overall player health and safety.
Now Will Smith is actually releasing a movie called Concussion later this year that deals with the issue of head trauma in the league. A Sony marketing chief has said that an NFL consultant was hired to see that the league is portrayed accurately. Is there any truth to these statements?
Actually I don’t know what Sony’s story is. As I understood, they hired a consultant to help them with the movie cause there’s no NFL participation in this. The amount of interaction between the NFL and Sony on this, I think, was limited to two emails between somebody from Sony and our head of communications to potentially plan a conversation that never happened. So I think that’s been already discussed in published reports. From what I understand, that’s the extent of the NFL’s involvement with Sony on this movie.
A quick Twitter search shows that there’s an account called @NFLConcussions with the bio reading, “Chronicling every publicly disclosed concussion in the NFL.” Has this type of criticism, especially online, applied pressure to the league to be more transparent and open about their policy changes?
Well I think it’s fair to say that we are. We hold a press conference the last few years at the Super Bowl where we put out all of our concussion and other injury data, and invite reporters in to ask about and talk about it. We engage with reporters like yourself who have questions about this and so, while we were pleased that we’re making strides, we also acknowledge that there’s a lot more to do. But our concussion protocols, which we go over with the player’s association, with outside medical experts, with international experts and concussions are things that we are going revisit every year and if those can be a standard that others can follow then we think that’s our responsibility to share those. Therefore, we do. As one example, there was an article in the paper yesterday that the National Hockey League is accepting one of our additions, which is an independent injury spotter in the media box to identify potential injuries and that’s something we’ve been doing for four years or so now. We think that that’s added to player’s safety because there’s more injuries being identified and that’s head injuries and everything else too and teams’ medical staffs are getting the benefit of having a third party sharing information with them and help them identify injuries so players can be cared for. So as it relates to our concussion statistics, our injury statistics overall, the protocols that we use, we share that information and we host get-togethers and conferences with other sports leagues, and are happy to talk to the press about the sorts of things we do and why we do them. I think that’s probably better sport health and safety overall through those efforts.
It’s no secret that the NFL is really big on family. What is your message to a mother who is concerned about her young son playing football but is hesitant to let him because of potential head injuries?
Well, I would say first to that mother if her son wants to play football that she should check out USA football as a football program, which is a program that our friends at USA football launched three years ago with the idea of certifying coaches, proper tackling techniques, equipment fitting and the signs and symptoms of concussion and the signs and symptoms of heat hydration illness and a number of other things. An independent study shows that those kids who participate in Heads Up football leagues have about a 30% lower risk of concussion and about a 70% or more lower risk of injury overall than those who don’t. So the NFL has taken the changes that we’ve made and we’ve hoped to cascade them throughout other levels of our sport and other sports, frankly. So I would tell that mother to make sure your coach is certified, make sure that your league has adopted heads up football and be a good consumer in the activities for which you signed your kids up, whether that be football or other sports because changes can be made and parents should be aware of those who are doing those programs the right way.