Paralyzing spinal injuries to high-school and college football players have declined significantly since the adoption of rules banning head-first tackling, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Sports Medicine Center.
Football injuries that resulted in permanent cervical quadriplegia decreased from 34 in 1976 to 5 in the 1984 season, the researchers noted in a report recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In addition, they said, cervical spine fractures and dislocations declined from 110 to 42 in the same period.
Rules banning head-first tackles and “spearing"--using the helmet to butt or ram an opponent--were adopted in 1976 by both the Federation of State High School Athletic Associations and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The rules were made in response to a 1975 study by the center that linked spearing to 52 percent of the high-school and college football injuries resulting in permanent paralysis between 1971 and 1975. More than 70 percent of the players rendered quadriplegic were injured while attempting to make a tackle that study reported.
Spearing places all the force of impact on the spinal column, according to the center researchers. In other forms of contact, the force of collision is dissipated to more resilient body parts such as the muscles in the back.
Ironically, spearing gained acceptance among coaches and players because improvements in helmets and face masks during the 1960’s and early 1970’s provided players greater protection, the researchers noted.
The significant decrease in severe head and neck injuries, the researchers said, confirms the value of viewing catastrophic sports injuries as the result of cause and effect rather than as “freak accidents.”
And they noted that crippling spinal injuries in other sports, such as diving, gymnastics, hockey, and rugby, might also be reduced by rules changes that would prohibit certain movements or require protective equipment.
The study was conducted by Dr. Joseph S. Torg, Joseph J. Vegso, Brian Sennett, and Marianne Das. Research data were collected by football coaches and trainers across the country and compiled in a national registry at the center. The researchers noted the continuing need for collecting such data to monitor the safety of athletics.
A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week