A football player stands on the football field with his burgundy helmet in his hand. The football player walks toward the other football players.
Football at all levels is changing its rules to keep pace with the growing body of knowledge on concussions and injury. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When the NFL owners held their annual meeting in Phoenix this past spring, much of the sports world homed in on the plan to move the storied Raiders franchise from Oakland to Sin City.

Big news, for sure, but there were also more than half a dozen rule changes the owners rolled out for the coming season, many aimed at improving player safety.

While these rule changes didn’t garner quite as many headlines, the long-term implications are no less significant. One approved proposal aims to toughen punishments for helmet-to-helmet hits, a particularly heinous collision that tends to grab headlines and cause concussions.

Some folks, no doubt, will lament the changes.

In a sport renowned for its smash-mouth, bone-cracking brutality, any steps meant to temper the action might be seen as nothing less than a watering down of the product.

You can’t just plow into them. You could risk a major injury that could affect a season if not the rest of their life.

Matt Axtman, DO

“Some people aren’t happy with it because you’re taking away the nuts and bolts of what football should be, or what some of these sports should be,” said Matt Axtman, DO, a sports medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group Orthopedics. “But you’ve got to take that safety approach, too, and say, ‘It’s great and well to see someone get smashed on the field—when it’s not yourself.’

“You’ve got to think about that individual out there who’s taking that hit and how that’s going to affect the rest of their life,” Dr. Axtman said.

Indeed, if you ask NFL players what they think of the changes—the retirees in particular—they’re apt to support measures that strengthen safety.

‘Heads Up’

The NFL is one of the most popular full-contact sports on the planet. It also tends to command headlines when the subject of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, arises.

The league has taken steps aimed at reducing the risks of high-impact collisions on the field, leading football programs at various levels, college and peewees, to emphasize greater awareness of safety.

“So now they’re going more toward, ‘Alright, you have to do this heads-up program, where when you tackle you have to make sure you see where your visualization is when you’re tackling that other opponent,’” Dr. Axtman said. “You can’t lead with the crown of your helmet. You can’t put your head down because that puts you and the opposing player at risk.”

The NFL is paying increasing attention to these issues. “They’re starting to throw in some of those targeting rules,” Dr. Axtman said.

Remember those plays from just a decade or so ago, when a wide receiver would leap into the air for a catch, only to get obliterated by a frothing madman?

Well, they haven’t been allowed to do that since 2010, when the NFL introduced its “illegal launching” rule to protect “defenseless” players. Many agree that it’s making the sport safer.

“You can’t just plow into them and nail them (in the head or neck), and lead with your shoulder,” Dr. Axtman said. “You start look at the targeting, you could risk a major injury that could affect a season if not the rest of their life.”

Expect more changes in the coming years, as knowledge of injuries and safety progresses and scrutiny from parents and media increases.

Last year, for example, The New York Times examined results from a study that suggested the Heads Up Football program—which teaches players to tackle using their arms instead of their heads—isn’t as effective as it’s touted, and must be combined with other safety changes.

The Heads Up Program works better, for instance, when combined with additional safety measures like no-contact practices and other changes implemented by the Pop Warner youth football program.