Barely bowl eligible and having just fired its head coach, Purdue is hardly the place one would think of as the center of the football universe. Surely, that distinction – for now -- belongs 112 miles to the northeast in South Bend at the University of Notre Dame.
When it comes to the future and the salvation of the game, though, perhaps not. Because, it is research being done by scientists in West Lafayette that is bound to change how football is played.
Featured on HBO's Real Sports last week, the Purdue Neurotrauma Group has been studying football and soccer players at high schools in the Lafayette area. Initially their intention was to study the effect of concussions on brain function. However, as the data came in, the PNG researchers discovered that a bigger issue very well may be sub-concussive hits and their volume.
They have just completed their fourth season of gathering data generated by ImPACT tests, functional MRIs, and force sensors in football helmets and headbands on soccer players. Based on that data, they were able to tell Real Sports correspondent Bernie Goldberg a “safe” limit for hits to the head in a season is around 700.
Unfortunately, according to Goldberg, the average college football player absorbs 1,000 blows to his helmet each fall.
The PNG scientists aren't alone in calling for a limit to hitting in football. The Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute published a “Hit Count White Paper” in February. Ironically, they advocated 1,000 hits in a season and 2,000 in a year for athletes 18-years-old and younger.
In light of the Purdue research, they may want to revise those numbers downward.
And Purdue is not alone in its findings.
Dartmouth College sports medics did a study on their own athletes and published the results in May in the medical journal Neurology. They found that 22 percent of football and hockey players experienced a significant drop on post-season memory and learning tests vs. only four percent of non-contact athletes.
A study done on German professional soccer players and same-age swimmers, via a sophisticated MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging, was published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found changes in the white matter of the brains of the soccer players but not the swimmers. The study did not consider brain function.
However, the Purdue researchers have done so extensively. They have found that football players, who regularly use their helmets to initiate contact, demonstrate significant impairment in memory function by the end of a high school season. By the following May, that function has largely returned to normal.
Among future goals for the people at PNG? Determining what “largely” means. 100 percent, 99 percent, 90 percent? Is the return of function the same after multiple seasons as it is after just one?
Some groups aren't waiting to find out. Last year, as part of the lockout settlement, the NFL and the players' union agreed to limit full contact in practice to once a week. Also last year, the Ivy League, in contrast with the NCAA's long-standing limit of five such practices a week, limited full contact to twice per week. Both leagues also eliminated two-a-day pre-season practices.
As the evidence mounts, other college leagues and state high school associations will have little choice but to follow suit.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and certified athletic trainer. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.