Bucco Bruce, Concussions and Helmets – What gives?

J. Meric

Recall the September 29th, 2013 game against the Arizona Cardinals.  That game was when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were supposed to don their past by wearing the creamsicle orange throwback uniforms, complete with the white helmets and Bucco Bruce.  Bucco Bruce was denied the opportunity to represent in that game due to a safety panel advisory.

Here is an excerpt from an ESPN.com article written by Paul Lukas about the incident:

Who came up with this new guideline?

The NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel, both of which are independent, unpaid panels that advise the league on safety issues. They felt that it's safer for a player to stick with the same helmet for the entire season because new helmets take time to be broken in properly.

Do these panels have the power to change or enforce rules?

No. But the league has taken their recommendation in this case.

Is this new guideline a recommendation or a hard rule?

It is not an advisory, and it is not optional. It is a rule. Teams must follow it.

Was the rule ever disclosed to the public or the media prior to the Bucs' announcement?

No.

When was the rule communicated to the teams?

The league sent this memo to all teams and equipment managers on Aug. 22. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says teams with throwback uniforms in the works were advised of the new rule earlier in the offseason.

If that's the case, why did the Buccaneers plan to wear their throwbacks in the first place?

The Bucs say they didn't learn about the new rule until the Aug. 22 memo was issued. That presented a problem because they had already put the throwback game on their schedule in early July. They spent the next few weeks trying to come up with a work-around but ultimately decided that there was no suitable solution, so they scrapped their plans for the throwbacks.

What's the underlying basis for this rule? Wouldn't a new helmet actually be safer than a helmet that's gotten banged up over the course of eight or nine games?

That does seem somewhat logical, or at least intuitive. But the league says those two advisory committees -- Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel -- found that it's safer, on balance, for a player to stick with one helmet for the entire season.

Have they presented any data to back this up?

No. That doesn't mean such data doesn't exist, but for now, the league hasn't provided much substantiation for this move.

Have you been able to talk to anyone on those committees?

No. The league declined a request to make them available for interviews.

You've interviewed NFL equipment managers in the past. Can't you talk to some of them about this?

Nobody is talking, at least for now.

Without any data presented to support the advisory panel, then it seems quite improbable to designate the validity of the rule.  Just the other day, I stumbled upon an article dealing helmets and concussions which made me want to revisit Bucco Bruce and his denial to make berth on the 29th of September.  On February 3, 2014, an article was published about researchers from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center that have gathered information from the 2012 and 2013 NFL season.  The researchers denoted three empirical subjects: 1. Brain slosh is the common cause of concussions.  2. Playing in higher altitudes helps in reducing concussions, which is directly related to brain slosh.  3. New helmet designs and rule changes have not shown impactful results in reducing concussions in the NFL.  Here is an excerpt of their findings:

"Brain slosh" and theories on how altitude influences concussions in football:  Many football-related concussions are suspected to be caused by brain slosh.  Because the brain doesn't fit tightly inside the skull, rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head puts the brain at risk for a slosh­-induced injury.

Cerebral blood flow rises at higher altitudes, causing the brain to fit tighter inside the skull, thus reducing the risk of concussion.  It's like bubble wrapping the brain.

"If we're going to solve this problem, we have to figure out a way to protect the brain from the inside out.  That's why we think we might be on the front edge of something that could influence a paradigm shift in concussion prevention-strategies," states Greg Myer, PhD, director of sports medicine research at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.  Dr. Myer is lead author of the study published this week in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy at: http://www.jospt.org/doi/abs/10.2519/jospt.2014.5298#.UugRfPso6po

Better helmets and rule changes aren't working:  Two years of data on NFL concussions from the 2012 and 2013 seasons show rule changes have not had a significant impact on the number of helmet-to-helmet hits, nor has there been a reduction in concussions.  If brain slosh causes concussions and the related symptoms, then creating a better helmet will not likely solve the problem, according to Dr. Myer.

"Our brains already have a natural protective shield.  Our skull is the brain's natural helmet," he says.  "What modern helmets do very well is protect our skulls from fractures and lacerations.  So the concept of adding more weight (and padding to a helmet) or size can create more acceleration and leverage on the head, which can increase risk of injury.  From a physics perspective, helmet designs do not appear to offer effective solutions to prevent concussions.  You're still going to have the brain sloshing inside of the head."

Caffeine and oxygen:  While playing at higher altitudes corresponds with a lesser risk of sustaining a concussion, using caffeine and oxygen counteract this beneficial reduction.  Why?  "Oxygen use on the sideline could cause a substantial decline in cerebral blood flow and thus an increase in brain slosh.  Similarly, caffeine use on the day of a game could adversely influence concussion rates," the study authors suggest.

The brain slosh concept makes sense, especially when taken into a hockey perspective.  In hockey, players get checked into the boards often.  Most of the time, it looks worse than it seems for the person receiving the hit into the boards.  The closer the player getting hit is to the boards, the worse the impact the player receives.  Via physics, the transfer of energy being delivered is put onto the board or plexiglass and often back to the person delivering said check.  Thus, the brain slosh helps to reduce the transfer of energy, which reduces the amount the brain moves.  Thereby reducing the occurrence of concussions once in that filled in state by the brain slosh.

As for better helmets for the prevention of concussions, researchers at Virginia Tech University confirm that their findings on helmet designs can help reduce concussions.  Findings is another word for data.  The study was conducted from 2005 to 2010, where 1,833 college football helmets were equipped with sensors for the research.  What I do find interesting within this article was the following:

While no helmet can prevent concussions from occurring in football, [Professor] Duma hopes that the results of their study will persuade coaches and athletes to do more research into helmet design and choose the helmets with the best ratings.

This brings us back to the NFL's cancellation of Buccaneers' throwback game, or any throwback game where teams require utilizing a different helmet.  Regardless of new helmets or rule changes, concussions are not preventable.  The brain slosh within the cranium has more to do with the reduction of concussions than the helmets' job description.  The new research information, supported by data, makes the helmet rule invalid.

Now, if the NFL were adamant upon the helmet rule, then players are not allowed to move during the season.  There would have to be a roster freeze on players already on a team for the whole season.  Players who are cut cannot be picked up by another team and play because of the helmet rule.  Those said players have to wear a different helmet as they have switched teams.  For example, Peyton Hillis and Bobby Rainey could not have played after being cut from their respective teams.  Hillis started the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and ended with the NY Giants.  Bobby Rainey started with the Cleveland Browns and ended the season with the Buccaneers.  Wes Welker wore a completely different helmet for the Super Bowl.  Why was he allowed to play with a different helmet?

It seems as though the NFL is inconsistent upon the helmet rule they utilized to thwart the throwback game with aforementioned examples of players using different helmets.  And with the new information produced stating that new helmets and rule changes have not done much to have an impactful reduction to concussions, then should the helmet rule be deemed obsolete and throwback games be re-instated for those teams who have to utilize a different helmet for that one game or two?

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