Football had a health epidemic on its hands long before COVID-19 was a thing. Concussions, brain injuries and CTE have ravaged the sport, with affects touching every level of the sport. Yup, any Pop Warner tackle-football league can be just as at risk as the well-compensated rosters of the NFL.
Preventing concussions on the gridiron is an impossible task. There’s no way to wipe them all out without eliminating the sport and trust me, this isn’t a story calling for that. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would justify any such argument. Denying there are multiple problems caused by the barbarism of the sport is an issue, namely through unnecessary contact to the head. And one professional league is trying to limit head injuries while not sacrificing the athleticism NFL fans clamor for.
The American 7s Football League was founded in 2014 and has had an annual season since 2015, including successfully completing an adjusted 2020 schedule. The A7FL’s championship game takes place on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Stadium. It’ll feature players without helmets or pads. The A7FL also doesn’t have kickoffs, field goals, or punts to eliminate special teams injuries, typically caused by players running almost the entire length of the field before making contact.
A7FL co-founder CEO Sener Korkusuz told Deadspin the league’s substitute, a 3-against-1 throw-off, is the “most exciting play in sports” as three defenders toss the ball to a returner and bring them to the turf. Games take place on narrow fields, ranging from a sideline to far-hash mark on a typical football field, about 37 yards.
“You watch any of our games, you just see it. Our guys are not hitting head-to-head, not repeatedly hitting head-to-head with subconcussive blows that contribute to what many think causes CTE,” Korkusuz told Deadspin this week. “In our game, it just doesn’t happen. But in traditional football, with a helmet on, every single play you’re hitting helmet-to-helmet. head-to-head. Even if it’s not a concussion, those add up over a career and are trouble. At least we’re elevating head safety, moving in the right direction.”
Korkusuz didn’t have an exact number for the league’s history but said he believes the number of total yearly concussions for the A7FL, now a 21-team league, is in the single digits. According to NBC Sports, the NFL reported 187 concussions last season in preseason and regular-season games and practices, significantly down from 2017’s total of 281.
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“We wouldn’t say that and haven’t said that,” Korkusuz said about the complete elimination of concussions. “You can have, similar to basketball or any other sport, you can have a head-to-head concussion. That could still happen as a freak accident. Head to the back of the ground, that is a concern for us. That has now become really the primary area of concern. And that’s where some of the equipment that’s available today begins to help. The soft-padded headgear, like you see in rugby for example, is a piece of equipment that’s allowed in the league.”
Another A7FL co-founder is David Isaacs, who is most prominently known for helping launch the UFC. Korkusuz relayed the message from Isaacs that similar results found in mixed martial arts about preventing head injuries as an evolution from boxing is the lane helmetless 7-on-7 football takes from the traditional iteration of the sport. MMA gave fighters various ways to win bouts instead of routinely getting punched in the head. Knockouts with head blows do happen in the UFC, but aren’t as paramount as boxing. Without a helmet to protect players, leading with their heads occurs less often.
The A7FL is still in its relative infancy compared to most major American sports leagues, so its trials to limit the onset of CTE won’t have tangible data for decades when it comes to lessening the degenerative brain disease. The plumet of concussions is a fantastic start.
“In 10, 20 years down the line as we’re more evolved with the sport and the science behind it, we’ll have more concrete numbers and how much of a percentage in reduction compared to traditional football,” Korkusuz said about lowering concussions. “Empirically and watching our game, I think it’s shocking to see that this sport can be played. No pads, no helmets, and still maintain the fan engagement and the excitement, the entertainment around it.”