New NFL Game Plan Looks to Tackle Head Injuries

PHOTO: Defensive Lineman Sheldon Richardson #91 of the New York Jets is injured and attended to by Head Trainer John Mellody and Team Doctor Kenneth Montgomery at Sun Life Stadium, Dec. 28, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Fla. PlayAl Pereira/Getty Images
WATCH The NFL's New Plan to Tackle Head Injuries

With another NFL season kicking off, the league is taking on concussions.

It seems the league is playing “catch up” on an issue that has been plaguing the sport for years. Recently, the NFL agreed to pay as much as $5 million to retired players without any admission of wrongdoing –- after thousands sued, claiming the NFL didn't take health risks seriously.

Now the NFL has named cardiologist Dr. Elizabeth Nabel as the league's first health and medical adviser. It's up to her to strike a balance between the action fans love and the players' safety.

Never again will players be rushed back onto the field without a thorough check-up. All 32 teams will abide by “a standardized checklist,” explained Nabel, which identifies concussion symptoms and asks players to perform simple cognitive tests.

She said there have been some improvements already, pointing out that regular season concussions are down more than a third since 2012 because of NFL rule changes.

But Nabel also talked about work beyond the gridiron. The NFL is investing $30 million to fund research at the National Institutes of Health, focusing on detection of brain injury and protecting the brain. The league also works with the Department of Defense to study brain injury; Nabel says this research can have impact beyond the football world.

“The NFL can play a leadership role in understanding the scientific basis for acute and chronic brain injury. Is there a protein secreted by the brain into the blood that indicates injury? How are helmets constructed? Can you use materials that will absorb the shock of contact a bit better?”

Getting players on board with the new system may not be so easy, considering the NFL’s tradition of grit -- some players even prefer a high hit so they can stay in the game and avoid a season-ending collision.

“We’re developing a culture of health and safety, and that has to be balanced against the culture of competition,” said Nabel.

According to Nabel, that balance will mean rule changes.

“There’ll be rule changes regarding equipment, helmets, tackling, other mechanisms of how the game is played.”

And as more parents seem to doubt youth football’s safety, Nabel sees a great NFL leadership opportunity.

“I think these are our struggles that we all go though as a parent. We want our child to have rich life experiences. We want them to engage in activities that have deep values and are character building, and team sports can play that role. And this is where the NFL can play a leadership role, and have a watershed effect on youth sports.”

For the best in the world and for kids just learning the basics, football could be very different down the road.

“In ten years, the game will be safer. The game is safer now than it’s ever been, and the league will continue to make steady progress.”