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Head injuries will force NFL to change

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University of Michigan running back Vincent Smith had barely touched the ball when University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leveled him. Smith’s helmet flew off and tumbled 10 yards backward. Clowney recovered Smith’s fumble. South Carolina players, coaches and charged-up fans went wild. Smith got up and walked off the field. Clowney’s reputation soared.

That big hit during the 2013 Outback Bowl was the talk of the sports world. Sportscasters celebrated it. TV networks reran it for days. The play was legal, within the rules. So what’s the problem? For the game of football, nothing — and everything.

Big hits have made football the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport. They have made the National Football League a multibillion-dollar profit machine. Yet those big hits may prove to be football’s undoing. A collision sport known for its gladiator culture faces a legal reckoning that may force it to change its very nature.

The most important person to the future of football may be a Columbia Law School graduate who works out of a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. Class-action lawsuits brought by hundreds of current and former NFL players who say they’ve suffered football-related brain injuries have been consolidated into a single case under Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody.

The players say they suffered injuries not just from spectacular hits. They also point to degenerative brain disease caused by "mild subconcussive impacts" — more routine hits that occur in practice as well as games. Those hits can lead to disability and death, the players say.

The most stunning claim: that the NFL conducted "a campaign of disinformation" that covered up the dangers. The NFL denies it engaged in any cover-up and says that the league and players share responsibility for the terms of employment through collective bargaining agreements.

Did the NFL know for decades that players were at risk of developing chronic brain disease? Does it face liability for not changing rules of play to protect players?

The courts will determine whether the NFL has liability. Even if the plaintiffs don’t win here, though, it seems likely that football, from the professional ranks to college and high school and youth leagues, is in for major changes. There’s growing evidence of the risks of cognitive impairment.

The NFL is evaluating a range of proposals: Ten days ago, the league decided to penalize ball carriers or tacklers who lower their heads to make contact with the crown of the helmet. Depending on how it’s enforced, that change could make a noticeable difference in the way the game is played. Previously, the league moved up kickoffs so there are fewer open-field, head-jarring hits on returns. The protocol for concussions is getting more strict. Safer equipment could revolutionize football.

Imagine a helmet that measures and transmits in real time the exact amount of force that a hit has delivered to a player’s brain. If a certain threshold is breached, then the player could be removed from the game immediately for medical evaluation — taking the guesswork out of when intervention is needed. That helmet already is on the market, and in use in some programs below the NFL level. It is but one example of change coming on fast.

The attention being paid to brain injuries is woefully overdue. Recognizing the risks does not necessarily mean that football has to be two-hand touch. As the offseason gives way to the NFL draft and summer training camp, all parties with a stake in football should be mindful of the case before Judge Brody. At a minimum, the risks call for a review of basic rules and procedures for treating injuries, as well as rapid adoption of new technology.

No one knows where this will take the game. Football could go the way of boxing, a once-popular sport that has become a sideshow amid head-injury concerns. Film and sports writer Budd Schulberg once remarked, "As much as I love boxing, I hate it. And as much as I hate it, I love it."

The more we learn about brain injuries in football, the same contradictory sentiments apply.

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