Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Accepting an 18 Game Schedule

The NFL owners have made it clear that they want an 18 game regular season and will push the players hard to get that concession. The primary objection to the 18 game schedule from the players point of view is of course the increased risk of debilitating injury which will likely shorten careers and lower the total earning potential of the individual players. While the incidence of injury within a season will most certainly rise with more games, the focus of much of the discussion undoubtedly also turns on the issue of concussions which is not well understood. After much public pressure and increasing evidence on the effect of repeated brain injury on football players, the NFL is taking steps to at least better handle concussions on the field. The question still remains though about how damaging concussions and other more minor repeated brain injuries really are which allows the NFL to be less than fully aggressive in minimizing not only the impact of specific injuries, but on monitoring and understanding the long term effects of these injuries.

If the players are serious about understanding the impact of repeated brain injury, as I suspect as least some of them are, then they should take a lesson from State Attorney General's from across the country when they sued the tobacco companies and insist on disclosure. Disclosure has been a part of many settlements with the tobacco industry in which the tobacco companies have agreed to make their internal documents available to anyone, including researchers in a broad array of fields such as chemistry, biology, marketing, economics, and political science. These documents have allowed these scientists to learn not only about the behavior of the companies, but gain a greater understanding  of the broader health and policy issues related to tobacco.

The deal for the players should actually require a lot less from the NFL than these settlements required of the tobacco companies. Instead of forcing the disclosure of previously secret memos and financial information, the players should request the collection and disclosure of new information. In exchange for the 18 game regular season, players should request the following three items:

  1. Brain scans at the begining and end of the season for every NFL player.
  2. Insertion of a chip into every player's helmet that tracks the impact that the player's brain is exposed to both on a play by play basis and on a cumulative basis.
  3. Disclosure at the end of the season of all the data (anonymized) to any and all interested parties.
This data would very quickly help researchers understand the full impact that repeated brain injury has on the brain throughout the course of an NFL season, as well as allow all interested parties to see the impact of various policies and equipment on reducing this impact. This data would go a long way from moving the debate from its current stage of arguing about how serious an issue it is, to figuring out the best way to protect players from these types of injuries.

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