Americans love football, and many of us will be in our living rooms this Sunday watching another Super Bowl, where we will witness several hours of violent collisions in a sport that has evolved into our national pastime.
Of course, these Super Bowl XLIX collisions are all subject to the laws of physics. Principal among these are the laws of inertia and momentum. Inertia is the tendency for an object in motion to stay in motion (unless acted upon by an external force). Momentum is a measure of the energy: the mass (weight) times the velocity.
The fastest velocity obtained by a human being is 27.44 mph (Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt). NFL runners are amazingly close to this speed, a few achieving 25 mph on a treadmill, but naturally a little slower when wearing full equipment.
If an NFL player with full equipment weighs 275-300 pounds, and is running at 20 mph, you don’t want to get in front of him. Pity the poor under-sized safety that does. And the faster he runs, the more momentum he has – and the harder it is to stop him.
You notice they try hard not to let a running back get up to full speed. And when that occurs, a violent collision takes place. The running back and tackler are often reasonably equal in mass, strength and acceleration.
On the line of scrimmage, blockers want to transfer their energy to the behemoth in front of them, put him back on his heels, and the ball-carrier can run right over him. Of course, the defensive player is trying to do the exact same thing to his offensive counterpart.
Usually these encounters mean there is a lot of energy with nowhere to go. Here is where the exoskeleton comes into play. The hard, plastic exterior resists deformation, and offers good protection from fracture. The soft tissues – somewhat curiously, muscle is classified as a soft tissue – can still be pulled tightly enough to rupture. The weak spot tends to be where the muscle attaches to the bone (ligament).
But hard plastic is not much of a shock absorber, which is one reason that there are so many concussions at all levels of football, not just the NFL. Under the hard shell is computer designed varying density form to absorb as much of the energy as possible. But it still hurts and it still causes damage.
And the brain, tucked away in the most elegantly designed vault, remains the Achilles heel of professional football. Simple physics dictates that those crashing stops, those violent decelerations, bang the brain against the inside of the skull – putting players at major risk for concussions.
Despite these constant collisions year after year, the brain is still enough of a mystery to us that we are surprised when it begins to malfunction 15 or 20-plus years in the future.
But football is a game of immortals – and Americans love to watch them, evidenced by the 111 million viewers of last year’s Super Bowl. Emboldened by youthful vigor, the players exercise themselves into a frenzy of physical perfection in order to be as well prepared as possible for these violent collisions each and every game.
Professional football players are our modern-day gladiators. Those gladiators will be center stage at the Super Bowl. Much like the losing Super Bowl team, it’s not always a happy ending for our Sunday heroes. Their profession is a violent one and the laws of physics sadly impact the overall health of many players later in life.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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