A favorite father-son bonding experience back in the day was when the little one was allowed to slide into dad's lap while driving, so he could put his hands on the wheel and pretend to drive.
"We miss the intimacy with dad," said Dr. Richard Ellenbogen. "But today, it sounds crazy. We'd never drive today without strapping in a child."
Which is Ellenbogen's way of saying to NFL players, commentators and fans grousing about the changes in the NFL inspired by player safety: Get over your damn selves.
Since Ellenbogen, chief of neurosurgery at Harborview Medical Center and a University of Washington professor, became co-chair in 2010 of the NFL's head, neck and spine committee, the NFL has had a 40 percent drop in concussion frequency, he said. A large portion of that has come from rules changes designed to reduce collisions that cause concussions.
Changes continued into the season that starts tonight. This time, it's the offensive player who will be penalized for dropping the helmet to strike a tackler.
Complaints from players, media critics and fans about altering the game's violent — and lucrative — nature still pickle the football conversation. But the $765 million settlement last week of a lawsuit from more than 4,200 former players made the point that the NFL no longer thinks the players were making up stuff.
Yes, the league spent money to save money; yes, they wouldn't have done it without the players filing suit in 2011; yes, the league avoided legal liability, and yes, two documentary movies about traumatic brain injury (TBI) are coming out over the next month starring the NFL as villain.
Whatever the motivations to settle, a watershed moment took place in the evolution of pro football. But the settlement was about the past. It is not about present players or future players. The players of today and tomorrow are not parties to the litigation. They are parties to a different game.
The present and the future are up to Ellenbogen and his peers around the country on the committee. By their request, the doctors are unpaid by the league, which knows it has to distance itself from past practices and, for a change, listen to science instead of scoff at it like a bunch of climate-change deniers.
"We analyze every concussion, and plays that cause concussions," Ellenbogen said by phone from his office last week. "We ask, 'How do we lessen the chances for concussion, and how do we treat the player when it happens?'
"The results have been amazing."
Their analysis is forwarded to the NFL's competition committee, which then makes the policy regarding rules changes.
As an example of science provoking change, Ellenbogen said data was analyzed from every concussion in the NFL the past two years. The study disclosed that a surprisingly high 28 percent of those concussions were created not from defenders hitting the heads of ball carriers, but ball carriers initiating contact with defenders by lowering their helmets prior to impact.
Not anymore, unless the teams have yardage and the players have cash to spare. Now the offensive player is also responsible for averting helmet-to-helmet impacts.
Increased protection has already had significant impact on how the game is played and how it is taught.
"We are totally on a different wavelength in terms of how we talk about the game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. "Our guys are all working hard to adapt, I think we’re doing a great job of it."
Carroll cited a play in the Seahawks' final exhibition game Aug. 29 against Oakland, when Seattle running back Christine Michael appeared to be called for illegal contact with his helmet against a Raiders defender in the open field. But after referees gathered to discuss the call, the flag was picked up because Michael attempted to avoid the blow.
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