Is the NFL Getting More Dangerous?

By Kim Smiley

Player injuries in the National Football League (NFL) have been making headlines for years now.  One of the questions that have been asked is whether increases in players’ weight and speed have been making the game more dangerous.

A Cause Map, an intuitive method for performing a root cause analysis, can be used to analyze this issue.  The first step when building a Cause Map is to determine how the overall goals are impacted.  In this example, the main focus will be player safety, but there are factors worth considering such as the negative publicity this issue has generated for the NFL.  There is also a whole lot of money in play with a lawsuit that more than 4000 players have filed against the NFL for allegedly covering up life-altering brain injuries.

The Cause Map is built by taking one of the impacted goals and asking “why” questions.  Why is there a safety concern?  There is the potential for severe neurological trauma because players are suffering brain injuries on the field.  The obvious reason this happens is because it’s football.  Players are hit and hit hard as part of perfectly legal and allowed tackles.  It’s how the game is played.    Players may also be hurt during illegal plays, such as a helmet-to-helmet contact, which are more likely to cause brain damage.  One extremely hard hit can end a career, but more and more evidence is showing that milder, repeated hits may also cause life-altering brain injuries.  Another potential cause that might be worth exploring is the protection that players wear.  They are still getting hurt despite wearing helmets and pads.  Maybe different equipment could help prevent some of these injuries.

The protective gear has improved and the tackling rules have been modified, but the basic game has remained the same since 1920 when the NFL began with one notable expectation.  The players themselves have changed radically over the decades.  In the 1920, the average lineman was 190 pounds.  The average lineman these days weighs 300 pounds.  Despite the extra 100 plus pounds, the average lineman has also gotten faster.  A faster, heavier player hits with more force and slamming into another body with more force probably isn’t healthier for anybody involved.

Continuing the Cause Map, it makes sense to ask why today’s players are so much bigger and quicker.  Specialization of training and nutrition programs surely play a role in the evolution of the player’s body.  There is also speculation that performance enhancing drugs are being used and complaints about the lack of the effective testing for substances such as human growth hormone.

This is an issue that still needs research.  A better understanding of how impacts are affecting brains is needed so that the full scope of the issue is known.  If the problem is as large as it is suspected, better ways of protecting these players need to be found.