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Bubble-wrap Helmets?

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

59.6 years. That’s the life expectancy of an NFL player – compared to the average American lifespan of 77.3 years. Research has shown repetitive head trauma is a strong cause for the near two decades of life taken away from NFL players. Popularized by the film Concussion, the correlation of football and the degenerative brain disease of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) causing conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia certainly make a strong catalyst for this shocking statistic. A recent study found more than 91.7% of former players lived with CTE. Other studies have found the rate of disease to be over 99%. As current technology only permits CTE diagnosis post-mortem, many athletes today are likely living through and suffering from symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, and depression.

The NFL is aware of its onus and has already paid north of $1 Billion in settlements. From a financial standpoint, the NFL may look at the CTE epidemic as a cost of doing business, simply writing the settlement funds off as an expense on their balance sheet. While the league has taken steps to improve its concussion protocol, the concern of treatment for concussed athletes – highlighted by Tua Tagovailoa’s injuries this past season – is cause for an ever-growing conversation surrounding the handling of NFL player injuries and their seemingly miraculous recovery times.

Most likely due to being the most prevalent professional football organization worldwide, the NFL is at the forefront of the CTE blame and culpability. However, it is unfair to villainize the NFL solely, as professional football athletes playing at the highest level have likely been rattling their skulls since their youth and Pop Warner days. However, with the expansion of NIL rights and the growing controversy of the “amateurism” label in the NCAA, we may see legal action from athletes seeking pecuniary damages from their collegiate football playing days as well.

So, what’s the fix? The NFL seems to think an upgrade in helmet safety will make the game less harmful. As cute as that idea is, (see the guardian caps during the beginning of the 2022-2023 preseason), even bubble wrapping helmets à la Jason Kelce will have minimal consequence. The actual concussive impact occurs from the brain hitting the interior of the skull – not from the skull hitting objects like other skulls or turf. While helmets may lessen the impact of the collision itself, the smashing of the brain with the inner skull is still consistent.

The truth of the matter is, to alleviate CTE pervasiveness in football requires a change in the rules. A change in the way the game is played. And although making football a more passive game is a move that will be met with vehement dissatisfaction by fans and the media, it may be the only way to ensure football athletes don’t live the tail-end of their lives in a constant state of mental torture the way Junior Seau, Aaron Hernandez, Mike Webster, and countless others have had to.

Aaron Polonsky is a 2L at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV and is actively seeking a sports law internship this upcoming 2023 summer.


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