The phrase stuck with me over the years after watching a preseason practice with a scout. He was used to watching college practices and games. In almost all major college programs, teams require the use of knee braces by some players, especially offensive linemen. The University of Michigan, led by Jim Harbaugh, recently reinstated that mandate after a spate of injuries.
In the NFL? Naked knees.
Less than half of NFL offensive linemen wear knee braces. They also bear the brunt of many of the knee injuries that we see, from the dramatic, brutal injury to Derek Newton to the all-too-common “roll up” that happens in almost every game.
Admittedly, the research on the efficacy of knee braces is mixed. Is spending hundreds of dollars on a piece of equipment necessary if it’s not proven to prevent injuries? Given the costs — both dollars invested in players and the time lost to injury — it’s pretty easy to come up with a positive calculus.
At a minimum NFL salary, the investment of $1000 per starting offensive linemen ($5000 per team) and a current injury rate of one in 12 for offensive linemen, which would cost an average of three and a half games, or means that preventing just one of these average injuries would save $400,000. In this simplified example, the prevention of one injury would result in a net savings of over $200,000.
Again, the research is mixed, but the downside is so low. At worst, the research has shown that there’s no effect and that there’s some discomfort from wearing the knee braces. However, that worst case is the rough equivalent of buying cheap insurance. No one complains too much when you don’t wreck your car and your house doesn’t burn down.
This situation is going to come down to one thing: control. NFL players often feel that the league, the owners, even their coaches are exerting levels of control on them. Adding one more mandate that they will feel and see each day can feel oppressive, even when their best interests are at heart. However, the reverse is also true. A player can take control of his situation by using his own equipment. Almost all of the things that a player could choose to wear are already approved for use.
It’s hardly just the use of knee braces where the NFL is falling behind. The equipment used in the NFL is at the cutting edge, but there’s been little in the use of new materials or new technologies. There have been evolutionary changes, but looking at a player in 1986 and one in 2016 doesn’t show significant differences. All the pieces are there and they’re frankly much the same in terms of form and function. The major changes are almost all in the shoes.
One piece is mostly unseen, but there have been material changes to it. Once again, however, players have ignored them for the most part. Flak jackets (or rib protectors) have been around since the 1950s, with the current form coming into the league in the 1980s. Simple foam and plastic, suspended from the shoulders, is a poor protector compared to something like Kevlar or ballistic foam. Both of these are available and are not only better protection, but are lighter and cheaper as well.
The same is true for helmets. NFL players are allowed to choose any helmet and typically choose familiarity over safety. Most will go through their entire career wearing a single type of helmet and often, the exact same helmet. The latest models from the key manufacturers, such as the easily identifiable Riddell Speedflex, is seeing a much higher adoption rate at the collegiate level, where helmets are mandated. You can look for the hexagon cushion at the front of the helmet this Saturday and Sunday to see for yourself.
Helmets from other manufacturers with top ratings, including Xenith and Simpson, have had even more difficulty cracking the market despite some technologies that test very well in the lab. While it’s more difficult to identify in games — most helmets look very much alike, especially painted identically — a close look shows that NFL players are slow to adopt.
In a situation where the league does mandate a pad, players have figured out a loophole. In the 2012 CBA, the league required the use of thigh and knee pads as part of the standard uniform. Watch on Sunday and you’ll see many players who will hike the knee pads up well above the knee, rendering them all but useless. Many will wear the smallest pad possible, but surprisingly, there hasn’t been a major increase in bruises to the leg that have necessitated missed time. There’s no way of telling if there’s a lesser effect, but it does show why players think they can get away with less.
None of this is particularly high tech, but as we move forward, the issue of sensors is going to be one that becomes even more contentious for players and teams. Currently, all players have a small chip encased in the back of their shoulder pads, allowing a company called Zebra Technology to have real time in-game tracking of players. This is occasionally surfaced as “Next Gen Stats” on telecasts, but most of the data is held by teams. Players believe that this will be used against them more than it will be used for their benefit. One player I spoke with last year believes that teams now knew when he might be a step slow or that he couldn’t take plays off in practice because it’s all being monitored. (Practices are not monitored currently.)
You’ll note that in all of these cases, much of the issue is that the players simply do not choose to use the most updated equipment. In many cases, given the option, they’ll remove safety equipment altogether. While this is their choice, it is a choice against their own interests and against the interests of their team and the game itself. However, it’s going to be difficult to change.
A mandated change would be difficult to negotiate. The next collective bargaining agreement is not due for several years and even then, players have found loopholes to get around even some minimum standards. For owners, it’s simply not a priority.
One solution would be at the team level. An owner that has seen a number of injuries or has a strong sports science voice within the team could elect to use a bonus structure. There would be no league rule against providing equipment to players and then giving bonuses for using the equipment. There are already workout and weight management bonuses in contracts, so adding in a “personal safety” bonus would be simple.
Another possible solution would be for the league or the players association to create a “best practices” model. While it would be difficult to see either as a neutral party, one or both could elect to have a real neutral party test equipment and name them. Think of it like a Wirecutter for football equipment. Not only would it be a resource for NFL players, encouraging them towards the best safety equipment possible, it would also be a resource for all levels, as well as a competitive stress that could push manufacturers for advancement.
Injuries are always going to be a part of the game, but something as simple as getting rid of naked knees could make the game better. Fewer injuries to the best players is a simple thing that could be in place tomorrow. It’s not about cost. It’s not about availability. This is about actually getting something done.