NFL: Is The Game Getting Safer?

As fans and teams get ready for another season of football, a new study sheds light on game safety. Host Michel Martin talks with Jesse David of Edgeworth Economics about whether efforts to cut down on serious injuries are getting results.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now to sports. If you are a football fan then you surely know that the NFL training camps are now open. Fans are excited, but in recent years concerns about injuries, especially the long-term effects of concussions have become part of the ongoing dialogue about the sport.

To that end, there's a new study that pays special attention to the number of concussions in the league, as well as other injuries. I'm joined now by Jesse David, he holds a doctorate in economics from Stanford University. He's a partner with Edgeworth Economics, which conducted the study. The firm has previously done studies for the NFL Players Association, but this was an independent project. Jesse David, thank you so much for joining us.

JESSE DAVID: Sure, happy to be here.

MARTIN: You analyzed the NFL's own data from their - what they call the injury surveillance system. Going back how long?

DAVID: We did. We've gotten data back through the 2004 season up through 2012.

MARTIN: And there's some interesting findings. You found, first of all, that the total number of injuries per season has been increasing slowly but steadily. That there was a big spike in 2011, which means, I guess, that there was probably more reporting of so-called minor injuries, but it reverted back to that pattern. But why has there been this slow increase? Do you - any idea?

DAVID: Well, it's probably a combination of two things that are going on. One, there is very likely increased recognition on the field of injuries and more careful treatment, certainly with concussions, we know that's been true. But also, as everybody says, players are getting faster, stronger, bigger, and that means more injuries.

MARTIN: Well, there's no ambiguity about severe injuries, I assume. Like, if people understand that if you miss say, eight plus days of playing time or if you require surgery, then most people would agree that that's a severe injury. You also found that the frequency of severe injuries has also been rising slowly but steadily. Same explanation?

DAVID: Well, I think the reporting, you know, as you know, the reporting is probably not an issue there. If you require surgery, any kind of system the NFL has is going to probably recognize that as an injury. So I think there's no question that severe injuries and injuries overall have been increasing fairly steadily, although somewhat slowly, but steadily over time throughout the last decade.

MARTIN: But it seems a little contradictory then, that says after a steady increase through 2010 the frequency of mild traumatic brain injuries has leveled off.

DAVID: That is true.

MARTIN: Is that good news? What does that mean?

DAVID: Well, again, now I think for brain injuries the issue of reporting is most likely to be an important question, because that is a type of injury I think everybody knows wasn't recognized the way that it is today in years past. So there was a very steep run-up in the recording of concussions throughout the last half of the last decade and that has leveled off. That very likely is an issue about reporting and now brain injuries are recognized for what they are and there has been a bit of a leveling off. Some of the recent rule changes also probably had an effect there.

MARTIN: I was going to talk about that next. There's been a lot made about rule changes recently to make the game safer, especially on kickoffs. Teams are kicking off from the 35-yard line now instead of the 30-yard line and the idea is that there are fewer chances for kick returns, which are known to be pretty dangerous. Do you think that those rule changes are having an effect?

DAVID: There's no question that the kickoff rule changes, and there were some other changes about blocking on kickoffs as well, but there's no question that had an effect. There was a pretty steep reduction in concussions last year in the 2011 season that clearly was caused by the rule changes. Unfortunately, I guess you could say as kickoffs are only a small fraction of the plays, so you can only get a relatively small reduction in the overall number of concussions. But that definitely did occur on kickoffs.

MARTIN: So what is your final analysis of this? Do you think that the game is getting safer or not?

DAVID: Safer, no. I mean, certainly the equipment is getting better but the players are stronger and faster and the number of injuries is increasing. They're short of converting to flag rules, you know, there's really no way to avoid a lot of the types of injuries, equipment simply can't do it or at least so far the equipment that's been devised. So I'm not sure what the alternative is, but the number of injuries really hasn't slowed down with any of the changes in equipment or rules, at least the overall number of injuries. So I'm not sure what the next step is.

MARTIN: I should mention that we did reach out to the NFL about the study, that they say they're going to take a look at it. They say we do know that the game is safer now, but we still have work to do. They say that they are going to continue to work hard on many fronts to make the game better and safer for the sport at all levels.

And they mentioned some of the things that we just talked about, including rule changes, improving medical care to properly manage and treat concussions and raise awareness of their seriousness, and they also say they're taking a leadership role by making investments in research to advance the science around the brain. And so on, as you would imagine, it's a lengthy statement from the NFL. Is there anything that you see in the data that you would point to to figure out what could be done to minimize the harm to players?

DAVID: Well, certainly there's been a lot of talk about the long-term cumulative effect of concussions. And I think a problem in the past may have been that players were simply going back into the game without rest, without treatment, and one number that I'll point you to that I think shows that that may be changing is that the amount of time missed for a concussion has been going up a lot in recent years. Where it was five or six days, maybe just five years ago, now it's 15 or 16 days. And that's very likely due to increased recognition and treatment as opposed to concussions being more serious now than they were five years ago. So that's certainly a positive step.

MARTIN: I am going to put you on the spot now. I apologize...

DAVID: ...OK.

MARTIN: ...I know that you're a fan. There is some discussion among fans about whether you can ethically enjoy this game knowing the cost - the toll that it takes on players. And I want to ask you, as a fan, and as a person who studied this data up close, does this give you pause?

DAVID: Well, frankly, I mean, and I'm speaking only for myself, of course here, I think in the past when some of the knowledge about what risks there were may not have been available to all of the players. That was maybe a more serious question. I think if everybody, you know, has their eyes open when they go into it about short-run and long-run effects of head injuries and all of the other types of injuries, then I don't have a problem with it. But as long as everybody knows the risks, I think, the sport is to be enjoyed and the players are making their choice about participating. And I'm certainly fine with that.

MARTIN: But according to your data the risks are actually increasing over time.

DAVID: They may be. And it may be that treatment is improving as well, but again, I think as long as the players are aware of that and understand what the long-run implications for their career and their lifestyle are, I don't have any problem with them participating. You know, I would do it, if I was a hundred pounds bigger and six inches taller, I'd play.

MARTIN: Would you let your child play?

DAVID: Well, I have a girl so I don't have to make that decision, but, yes, I think so. If she knew what the risks were and enjoyed it and wanted to play, I wouldn't have any problem with that. You'd have to ask my wife if she agrees but I would be OK with it.

MARTIN: Jesse David is a partner with Edgeworth Economics, that's a group that has previously worked with the NFL Players Association, but this group analyzed previous data on the injuries in the NFL. He was with us from member station KPCC, that's Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena. Jesse David, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVID: Thanks.

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