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At a critical moment of play, coaches exhort their players to get their head in the game.

The National Football League finds itself at a critical moment in its history, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when he spoke at Carolina on March 6. Its future success, in large part, will depend on “getting the head out of the game,” as either a weapon or target, he said.

“There is still a great deal we do not know about the effects of head injuries, but one thing is for sure: We can and must do more to reduce, prevent and treat them,” Goodell said.

Goodell gave the Department of Exercise and Sport Science’s (EXSS) annual Carl Blyth Lecture at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center.  He said that interest in and popularity of the sport have never been greater, and that a national conversation about the dangers of football has called into question whether parents should allow their to children to play the sport.

The NFL welcomes that conversation and wants to be part of addressing the important questions being raised, Goodell said. And that is a key reason he came to Carolina, where groundbreaking work by faculty and students is going on.  UNC professor Kevin Guskiewicz leads the NFL’s subcommittee on safety equipment and playing rules, and has been working with the league over the last decade to develop safer ways to play the game.

Guskiewicz, EXSS chairperson, developed the Helmet Impact Telemetry (HIT) system, which allows teams to assess the force and impact of a blow to a player’s head in real time. UNC’s football team uses HIT, but the NFL does not. 

“Our commitment has been and will continue to be to change the culture of football to better protect players without changing the essence of what makes the game so popular,” Goodell said.

The league must look at changes to the game as if the future of football depended on it, he said. “Because it does.”

One such change was last season’s new rule moving kickoffs up five yards, from the 30-yard line to the 35, Goodell said. The rule change was proposed by the subcommittee led by Guskiewicz, who is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Exercise and Sport Science.

The NFL also has intensified efforts to support research to accelerate the development of advanced diagnostic tools for concussions to help prevent them in all activities, Goodell said. Last fall, for instance, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on the brain, he said.

And as part of a collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, the NFL committed $100 million for a 10-year research project at Harvard University to treat and prevent health problems plaguing former NFL players.

In February, the NFL formed a partnership with General Electric to develop imaging technology to help detect concussions. Guskiewicz, a member of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, will work with the NFL and GE to identify areas of focus.

The league has also partnered with the U.S. Army to increase awareness about the seriousness of concussions and other head injuries linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Science can be a game changer in making sports safer,” Goodell said.

Later this month, the league’s competition committee will begin looking at possible rule changes to promote the fundamentals of safe tackling.

“We will find other ways to take the head out of the game,” Goodell said. “The helmet is for protection. It should not be used as a weapon.

“The result will be a safer sport and a worthy example for players in all levels of football.”

Published March 6, 2013.