As the 2022-23 NFL season’s divisional round playoffs started, there was a lot of talk about the young age of the quarterbacks leading the eight remaining teams. From the everpresent Cowboys’ 29-year-old Dak Prescott to the unlikely 49ers with 23-year-old rookie Brock Purdy, the average age came out to a whopping 24.2 years old. To the public, this represented a changing of the guard in America’s favorite pastime. It represented a shift in how football is played, what is expected from the players on the field, and what young kids watching will aspire to be as they grow up. However, in my opinion, this wasn’t the most significant change highlighted by the happenings of the current NFL season.
On January 2nd, 2023, during the marquee Monday Night Football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals, Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on a routine play after tackling Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. The game was suspended, never to be resumed. The whole NFL community was shell-shocked, as they witnessed something unprecedented. Fans, players, owners, and officials all rallied together for his health. The time between his being taken off the field on a stretcher and before the first positive update was scary. But as he recovered, the deep love for the playoffs catapulted the attention off Damar Hamlin and onto TV screens. Upon close examination of the swift response, available resources, and reaction to the freak incident, we can see the NFL’s planning combined with evolved safety measures and the importance of sports medicine come to light.
From the lack of helmets and shoulder pads in the 1940s to a helmet testing system and cleat sensors today, there has been a massive amount of growth in the NFL as the result of a time-consuming and expensive effort toward player safety. There have been major rule changes throughout the course of the NFL’s history. This ranges back to 1977 when the Head Slap – made famous by Deacon Jones – was outlawed. Some major ones were in 2009 when an owner’s meeting inspired a concussion protocol, and several rule changes to outlaw dangerous plays such as blocking with one’s helmet or initiating contact with defenseless players. Alongside rule changes, the NFL added independent training experts known as ATC spotters in 2012 to watch for injuries.
Further, there is an extensive emphasis on planning for major on-field accidents. According to Dr. Jonathon A Drezner, all NFL teams have a ‘written emergency action plan’ for afflictions such as cardiac arrest, neck or head trauma, or chest and abdominal shocks. These plans are practiced two times prior to a season’s beginning, occurring at the practice facility and the stadium to cover all locations. Before the start of every match as well, there is an hour-long briefing between officials and medical personnel which encapsulates the procedure in case of an emergency. Player family histories and genetics are also researched and are subject to annual electrocardiograms. (CNN.com)
Sports medicine has its roots in Greek Temples, with the discipline being founded as a result of Hippocrates’ rejection of the idea that God caused injuries. Since that, the NFL and American Football, in general, have been credited with being the cause of the boom in the growth of sports medicine, partly due to the sheer number of injuries and maladies that occur in the sport. According to an editorial – named American Football and the evolution of sports medicine – by BR Cahill, several organizations which promoted and educated up-and-coming physicians about sports medicine in specific were founded after concerns that arose after considering the multitude of factors that led to indispositions.
Perhaps the most progress has been made in this field, with the advent of technology being a major factor. The NFL, in collaboration with technological and medicinal companies, has developed The BEAST, a biomechanical testing device that is used to measure loads on the bodies of players. A digital representation of NFL players at each position is being created to predict and analyze potential injuries and risks in collaboration with AWS. (NFL.com)
Sports are highly commercialized and advanced nowadays. There exists an elite level of play, and some would call sport to be the world’s biggest spectacle. As we enjoy them from afar, it is crucial to realize that the whole industry just comes down to athletes, who are human more than anything else and have the same capabilities and limitations as all of us. Modern sports technology and the evolution within American Football is necessary to prioritize life and health over anything else, and anything less is a disservice to the athletes out there who, as recently evidenced, quite literally put their life on the line for the sport that they love and the millions of fans that support them.