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Football athletes can face up to weeks of rehabilitation in the event of receiving a concussion on the field. Here, Cornell football faced off against Colgate on Schoellkopf Field on Oct. 15, 2021.

November 29, 2021

Cornell Experts Dissect Football Concussions, Helmets, Athlete Safety

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The American tradition of Thanksgiving is one filled with food, family and football. With eyes glued to the screen to watch the next touchdown, the dangers of football are often overlooked. From the National Football League to Cornell’s football team, concussions pose a great risk to football players. 

In recent years, after lawsuits filed by former NFL players and more research on the brains of NFL players, the league has aimed to mitigate the risk posed by concussions by improving helmets. 

Prof. Asad Siddiqi, clinical rehabilitation, said that a concussion is a neurological disturbance caused by forces that transmit impact to the brain, such as through a blow to the head or a tackle to the body. 

The frequency of tackling in football and fast paced nature of the sport has resulted in high incidences of concussions. 

“With athletes who are very large, very strong and very fast, the ability to hit somebody and induce a force that is transmitted to the head is pretty likely,” Siddiqi said.

Part of the issue, Siddiqi said, are deficiencies in the current standard of football helmets, which currently have an improper field of view, poor fit and heavy weight that could cause neck fatigue. 

To combat this, the NFL allocated $1.55 million to three companies in 2019 as part of its Helmet Challenge to promote the development of more effective helmets.

“What [the NFL is] trying to do with these newer helmets is ensure a more proper fit with lighter weight materials that are still resilient, but are also able to dampen force,” Siddiqi said. “[This will] minimize the jostling that happens at the level of the brain.” 

The shift in safety has reverberated on campus too — Cornell Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer, Bernie DePalma, agreed that companies are trying to develop helmets that distributes kinetic energy and protects athletes from the majority of impact. 

DePalma explained that neck strength is just as critical, if not more important than the helmet itself. The neck prevents excessive motion of the head and brain within the skull when a player is prepared for a hit due to awareness and strength and using the neck muscles to stabilize the head. 

If a player is able to prepare for a tackle to the chest, for example, the neck will automatically tense up and prevent free motion of the head. But, if they don’t brace for impact, there’s more movement of the neck and head, leading to greater rotatory impact that can lead to concussions. 

In order to minimize athletes’ risk of injury on the field, DePalma said Cornell Athletics puts in place various safety measures, such as baseline cognitive exams and a concussion assessment

According to DePalma, one of the tools utilized, the Sideline Concussion Assessment Tool tests for orientation, which requires knowing the date and current time. This test is performed on all incoming freshmen to provide a baseline for an athlete’s score after they are believed to have a concussion.

Also, every student-athlete performs an annual baseline ImPACT test. ImPACT testing is a computerized test that measures the effects of concussion on the brain. The test assesses areas such as verbal memory, visual memory, reaction time and processing ability.

These precautionary measures are critical because once a player is injured, they must undergo extensive rehabilitation to prevent longer lasting cognitive deficits and if left untreated could lead to Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. 

Those who are concussed while playing slowly increase their physical activity as they recover, first riding a bike to ensure that symptoms aren’t increasing, and later progressing to sport-specific training, such as sprinting and changing directions. 

Subsequently, an athlete will lift weights then non-contact practices and eventually return to regular practices, DePalma said. 

These measures are implemented to prevent a second impact, which could prolong a seven to 10 day recovery period to three to four weeks. 

“We’ve had athletes who missed an entire season because they didn’t say anything because they went back in and had another or second impact before recovering from the initial concussion that wasn’t reported,” DePalma said.

Despite the ongoing efforts to make football a safer sport, DePalma emphasizes that there will never be a helmet that completely prevents concussions. 

However, DePalma noted that concussion rates have always been relatively low for Cornell football athletes due to the department’s coaching and training techniques. 

“Our coaches are great at teaching technique and limiting that [direct] type of contact in practice. We’re eliminating a lot of exposures,” DePalma said.