TNH interviews Erik Swartz, UNH prof. and NFL committee member

By KERRY FELTNER
On March 5, 2012

UNH's Erik Swartz, associate professor of athletic training in the kinesiology department, has recently joined the National Football League's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, one of the health and safety committees that help to inform Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner.

Swartz has primarily researched the prevention and management of cervical spine injuries in athletes, and is volunteering his time for the NFL position with other experts in the field.

KF: What do you hope to accomplish by being a member of the committee?

ES: To clarify, this is a volunteer/non-paid subcommittee appointment. I am not considered a staff member with the NFL. It's a similar scenario to other types of service (engagement) activities faculty are involved in. … Its website explains it well: "These committees are comprised of independent experts in fields relevant to the committee on which they serve, and serve as volunteers."

KF: What do you think could help prevent head traumas on the NFL level?

ES: Improvements in equipment, specifically football helmets that better absorb the forces from impact could help reduce head trauma, such as concussions. That certainly seems to be the focus of much of the research being conducted around the country and is a logical consideration.

However, this is a catch-22 in that the safer a player feels, the more likely they are to exhibit riskier behavior, like tackling with the head. This is what happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s; when the helmets got better, more players started spearing with their heads. It's a phenomena referred to as "risk compensation." This resulted in a spike in catastrophic head and neck injuries.  

The only true way to prevent head and neck injuries in football would be to avoid head impacts altogether. Since this is not likely in American football - at least not the way it's currently played - what is gaining momentum are discussions and actions to at least make attempts at reducing the frequency of these head impacts to lower the overall risk.

For example, last year the NFL changed the yard line from where teams held kickoffs (the 35 instead of the 30-yard-line). This resulted in more touchbacks (less runbacks) throughout the season and effectively reduced the impacts sustained during that play and resulted in a reduction of concussions. Also before last year's football season, the Ivy League reduced the number of days its football teams could have "contact" practices during the week - again, to reduce the frequency of impacts.

There are other things that can be done through education and more focused training early on in a football player's development to emphasize proper tackling techniques that leave the head out of the tackle.

KF: What teams will you be working with?

ES:  I'm not working directly with any teams; our committee advises the commissioner's office on matters pertaining to player safety, specific to equipment and head and neck injury.

KF: What do you hope you get out of the experience on a personal level?

ES: Personally, the opportunity to interact with the other members of my subcommittee and the other subcommittees that make up the Head, Neck and Spine Committee are extremely rewarding and almost beyond description. At our February meeting, one of our co-chairs commented that the group assembled likely represented the best neuroscience group in the country. … This probably wasn't an exaggeration.

The members of this committee are represented by leading neurosurgeons and other physicians, athletic trainers, engineers, and others from the U.S. and Canada. For example, my subcommittee chair is Kevin Guskiewicz - Ph.D., ATC, FNATA, from UNC Chapel Hill - a leading researcher in concussion and brain injury in sports, and is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow (Genius Grant). It is truly humbling to be associated with Kevin and the others from the HNS committee. 

KF: Why did you accept the appointment?

ES: I accepted the committee appointment as it clearly aligns with my research priorities/agenda allows me to be directly involved in matters pertaining to improving NFL football player safety, specific to head and neck injuries and safety equipment.

I've investigated the implications of protective equipment in football on the ability to render emergency/acute care for serious head/neck injuries for over a decade. My research has had the potential to provide immediate practical solutions for the athletic trainer or other health care professionals responsible for any football player's safety, and so would naturally be helpful for the purposes of this NFL subcommittee.

Football is the most popular sport in our country, and obviously the NFL is extremely popular. With this, there is often a "trickle-down" effect into lower levels of football, which involves millions of participants. Because the sport is inherently dangerous, some of the changes or improvements made in the NFL could eventually be adopted at lower levels, thus improving safety for all.


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