The NFL last year changed the kickoff line from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line. This change made it easier for a kicker to kick the football into the opposing team’s end zone, usually resulting in a touch back where the receiver caught the ball, took a knee in the end zone, and play was stopped. The goal of this rule change was to reduce the number of concussions and violent hits that players could potentially face during the kickoff by limiting the number of opportunities for players either to hit or be hit.
As reported by ESPN this week, the rule change apparently worked. During the 2011 NFL season, the total number of kickoff returns dropped 53 percent as compared to the 2010 NFL season. And as a result of this drop, there was a 40 percent reduction in concussions occurring on kickoffs during the 2011 NFL season as compared to the 2010 NFL season. And for all NFL games in general, concussions were down 12.5 percent, from 218 concussions in 321 games in 2010 to 190 concussions in 320 games last season.
Given the success of this rule change, NFL owners are considering additional changes to increase player safety. These changes include outlawing horse-collar tackles on passers (an example of a horse collar tackle can be found here) and expanding protection of defenseless players to those who are hit by crackback blocks by outlawing contact to the head area or being blocked headfirst.
As of this month, an estimated 1,000 lawsuits by former NFL players are pending against the NFL for concussion-related injuries. The league is facing about a half-dozen class action suits and more multi-action suits. A list of these players can be found here, and includes players such as Tony Dorsett, Mark Rypien, Jim McMahon, and Mark Duper. Clearly, the issue of player safety and reducing concussions and head injuries remains on the forefront. As the 2012 NFL season approaches, we can expect additional proposals from the NFL, the NFL Players’ Association, sports equipment manufacturers, and current and former players as to how the game can be made safer for the players on the field. We will continue to blog about this issue as news develops, including how it relates to legal duties that may be owed and the outcome of pending litigation.