The National Football League is increasing safety for football players and other athletes at all levels of sport. The League has and will continue to improve how we play the game, how we teach the game and how we use research to improve the game.
Click here to download a PDF version of the NFL Player Health and Safety Fact Sheet.
How the NFL is Promoting Health and Safety in Sports
THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE IS INCREASING SAFETY FOR FOOTBALL PLAYERS AND OTHER ATHLETES AT ALL LEVELS OF SPORT. THE LEAGUE HAS AND WILL CONTINUE TO IMPROVE HOW WE PLAY THE GAME, HOW WE TEACH THE GAME, AND HOW WE USE RESEARCH TO IMPROVE THE GAME.
HOW WE PLAY THE GAME
The NFL uses injury data collected and reviewed by Quintiles—an independent third-party organization—and input from medical advisors, Quintiles, clubs, players, coaches, the NFL Players Association, and the Competition Committee to constantly evaluate how we can change the rules of the game and use technology to improve safety.
RULES ON THE FIELD
Since 2002, the league has made 42 rules changes to eliminate dangerous tactics and reduce the risk of injuries, especially to the head and neck. To highlight just a few:
- In 2009, the NFL prohibited a defender from using his helmet, forearm, or shoulder to make contact with the head or neck area of a “defenseless” receiver.
- In 2010, the NFL expanded that rule to protect all “defenseless players” from contact to the head by an opponent’s helmet, forearm, or shoulder. The rule was expanded again in 2012 to include certain defensive players.
- In 2011, the NFL moved the restraining line for the kicking team from the 30- to the 35-yard line to reduce the risk of injury on kickoffs. Further, in 2016, the NFL moved the spot of the next snap after a touchback resulting from a kickoff from the 20- to the 25-yard line.
- In 2013, the league prohibited a runner or tackler from initiating contact against an opponent with the top or crown of the helmet.
- In 2016, the NFL expanded the horse collar rule to include when a defender grabs the jersey at the name plate or above and pulls a runner toward the ground.
SIDELINE MEDICAL SUPPORT
A Team Behind the Team:
There are 29 medical staff at a stadium on game day. This specialized squad of medical professionals, including team physicians and athletic trainers, patrols the sidelines at every NFL game. In conjunction with the NFLPA, the league added independent medical personnel and adopted new technology to assist in the identification and review of injuries, with a specific focus on concussions. It is required that each sideline is staffed with an unaffiliated neurological consultant (UNC), who collaborates with team physicians to make in-game neurological assessments and who must independently approve a player returning to play following a suspected head injury.
ATC Spotters/Medical Timeout:
The medical staff also includes an expert “eye in the sky”—a certified athletic trainer (ATC) positioned in a stadium box who scans the field and television replays to help identify players with a potential injury who may require attention. Starting in the 2016 season, a second certified athletic trainer will be added to the box to help identify potential injuries. The ATC spotters are authorized to stop the game and call a medical timeout—which does not count against either team—if needed to provide a player with immediate medical assistance.
The NFL and NFLPA, in conjunction with their medical advisory committees, implemented the NFL Game Day Concussion Protocol in 2011 to address the diagnosis and management of concussions. The parties consistently review the Concussion Protocol and make necessary changes to ensure players are receiving care that reflects the most up-to-date medical consensus. In 2016 the NFL and NFLPA announced a new policy to enforce the Concussion Protocol. The parties will follow a strict and fair process to investigate incidents and determine appropriate disciplinary action against a club—including fines and possible forfeiture of draft picks—should a member of its medical staff or other employee fail to follow the protocol.
Team medical staff—including the UNC—also have access to sideline video monitors, which allow them to watch video of any play. As a result, medical staff can review the mechanism of an injury to better understand what happened and design the best care for a player. The video cannot be accessed by anyone other than the medical team.
Since 2013, the NFL has required clubs to use electronic tablets with specially designed applications for the diagnosis of concussions. The X2 app, which includes a step-by-step checklist for assessing players suspected of head injury, as well as all players’ concussion baseline tests and historical data, is now an established component of in-game concussion diagnosis and care. This record travels with a player wherever he goes in the league, so that his medical history is close at hand from game to game and team to team.
MANDATORY PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT AND PRACTICE RULES
Limits on Practices:
The league has worked with the NFLPA to change mandatory practice rules. NFL teams are limited to only 14 days of full-contact football practice during the 17-week season. This restriction amounts to less than one day of full-contact practices per week.
Improving Helmet Safety:
Through our Head, Neck and Spine Committee established in 2010, the NFL—in partnership with the NFLPA—assembled a team of engineers, biomechanical experts, and material scientists to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the football helmets worn by NFL players. Testing was conducted in 2015 and again in 2016, and the results were shared with players, athletic trainers and equipment managers to help players make informed decisions when selecting their helmets. A poster summarizing the results hangs in all 32 NFL club locker rooms. As part of its Head Health Initiative, the NFL has solicited and funded proposed ideas for new materials and technologies that could better protect the brain from injury. The NFL is also funding joint research projects with the National Institute on Standards and Technology (NIST) to identify materials that would better mitigate forces experienced in a wide range of settings, including sports and in the military. The combination of this research holds the promise of headgear that will provide superior protection for athletes in many different sports.
Since the 2013 season, the NFL has required players to wear thigh and knee pads during games to better protect them from leg injuries. As with helmets and shoulder pads, players not wearing the mandatory protective equipment are not permitted onto the playing field and may be assessed financial penalties.
Improving Field Surfaces:
The Musculoskeletal Committee oversees and analyzes biomechanical research and injury data and shares this information with shoemakers and artificial turf manufacturers. With the committee’s recommendations, turf manufacturers have taken steps to standardize the characteristics of turf—such as surface hardness and the depth of sand below the turf—in order to decrease injuries. In 2016, the NFL and NFLPA established the Field Surface & Performance Committee, a joint committee to provide advice and guidance regarding the safety, performance, and testing of game day and practice surfaces. This new joint committee will perform research and advise the parties on injury prevention, improved testing methods, and the adoption of tools and techniques to evaluate and improve field surface performance and playability.
HOW WE TEACH THE GAME
The NFL is committed to helping young athletes learn how to participate in all sports as safely as possible. Active participation in sports benefits young people physically and builds positive leadership and teamwork skills. The NFL wants to maximize these benefits while minimizing safety risks.
Heads Up Football:
In April 2013, USA Football—with support from the NFL—launched the “Heads Up Football” (HUF) program. This educational outreach program, funded by a $45 million grant from the NFL Foundation, strives to improve player safety for youth and high school players by training and certifying coaches on safety fundamentals; teaching proper tackling techniques; appointing Player Safety Coaches for every youth league to enforce safety protocols; ensuring proper equipment fitting; and teaching coaches, parents and players how to recognize and respond to head injuries, including concussions. In February 2015, USA Football adopted new youth tackle football practice guidelines, which have been endorsed by leading medical organizations. These include clear definitions of contact and time limits on player-to-player full contact.
Promoting Sports Safety Education and Access to Athletic Trainers:
In May 2014, during the first ever Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit at the White House, the NFL Foundation pledged $25 million to test and expand health and safety projects over the next three years. One such project is a $3 million investment in partnership with National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), Gatorade, and the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS) to fund athletic trainers in underserved high schools nationwide. This program has already impacted more than 160,000 youth across 670 high schools. Earlier this year, 15 schools were each awarded $50,000 to fund athletic trainer programs for their student athletes. Other projects include field grants to provide new and refurbished places for kids to play safely, equipment grants, and funding for continuing education for clinicians.
Raising Awareness about Concussions:
A poster and related player fact sheet was developed, in partnership with the CDC and others, to educate players about the possible consequences of concussions and advise them to report any related symptoms they may experience. A similar poster, endorsed by 16 national governing bodies for sport, was developed for young athletes and made available through the CDC to display in youth team locker rooms, gymnasiums, and schools nationwide.
Helmet Replacement Program:
In 2012, the NFL partnered with the U.S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission and a number of other organizations to launch a helmet replacement program for youth leagues in underserved communities. In conjunction with USA Football, the NFL continues to provide equipment grants that furnish new or reconditioned helmets for youth leagues in underserved communities at no cost.
NFL PLAY 60 was launched by the NFL in the fall of 2007 to encourage kids to be physically active for at least 60 minutes per day. Since that time, the NFL has joined forces with partners such as the American Heart Association, KaBOOM!, National Dairy Council, and United Way to create school programs and build new places for kids to be active.
NFL FLAG Football:
Flag football is a great way for boys and girls of all ages to stay active and learn the fundamentals of the game. There are more than 1,100 NFL FLAG leagues across the U.S., consisting of more than 340,000 participants. Additionally the NFL FLAG Essentials program, which includes an in-school PE curriculum, has enabled more than three million students to get active through NFL FLAG.
In 2010, the NFL began advocating for youth sports concussion prevention laws in every state. These laws, known as Lystedt laws, mandate a return-to-play protocol to better protect youth athletes in all sports from the risks of preventable concussions. Lystedt laws require: 1) concussion education for parents, coaches, and players; 2) immediate removal of an athlete who has sustained a concussion; and 3) clearance by a proper medical professional before a young athlete may return to play or practice. These laws have now been adopted in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia.
HOW WE USE RESEARCH TO MAKE THE GAME SAFER
The NFL is investing in pioneering medical research to help scientists and doctors find breakthroughs that will benefit all athletes. These investments include:
Foundation for the National Institutes of Health:
In September 2012, the NFL announced a $30 million unrestricted grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) to advance medical research on brain injuries, especially among athletes and veterans. This marked the single-largest donation to any organization in the league’s history.
Head Health Initiative:
In 2013, GE and the NFL teamed up to launch the Head Health Initiative, a four-year,$60 million collaboration to accelerate diagnosis and improve treatment for traumatic brain injury. The initiative includes the following:
- A four-year, $40 million research and development program to develop next-generation brain imaging technologies that take a whole-brain approach to improving the diagnosis and treatment of patients with mild traumatic brain injury.
- A two-year, open innovation challenge fund to invest up to $20 million in grants to scientists, academics, experts and entrepreneurs worldwide across three innovation challenges aimed at spurring disruptive advancements to better understand, diagnose, and protect against traumatic brain injury. Under Armour and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are also supporting this effort. Results include potentially revolutionary innovations such as a simple blood test to aid in the detection of traumatic brain injury, a turf under-layer that absorbs impact and other new energy-absorbing materials designed to better withstand force and protect against concussions.
- Partnering with the U.S. Army: In 2012, the NFL and the U.S. military launched a long-term initiative to improve the health of soldiers and players by sharing information and providing education on concussions and health-related issues that affect both organizations. The initiative fosters peer-to-peer conversations to reduce the stigma that may be associated with reporting brain injuries and to promote sharing of tips on how to recognize, prevent, and manage concussions.
Concussion Symposium at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC):
In October 2015, UPMC held a two-day symposium, underwritten by the NFL Foundation, that brought together 37 leading, independent concussion clinicians and researchers from around the country to propose standard guidelines on the best ways to treat concussions.
Second Annual International Professional Sports Concussion Research Think Tank:
The league hosted its second annual international think tank on concussions in October 2015, convening representatives of the world’s major sports leagues and concussion experts to share best practices and protocols and collaborate on ways to advance progress, such as a new study on the long-term effects of concussions in sports.