Two years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying, “It’s not necessarily proven, but clearly I think you’d be safer with a mouth guard in your mouth.”

Commissioner Goodell further covered the NFL’s derrière by saying there is no “reliable data” that proves the injury rate would be lowered through mandatory use of pads or even mouth guards. It’s interesting to note that the NFL didn’t wait for the scientific evidence to make thigh and knee pads mandatory equipment for the upcoming season – a move the players’ union was not pleased with.

DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFLPA thought the use of mandatory equipment should have been collectively bargained. In fact, in 1995, the league lifted the mandate for all padding except helmets and shoulder pads. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, who serves as chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, disagreed with Smith in that he felt the league can apply it “unilaterally” because it’s a playing rule. He said,

“Some of us felt we were remiss that we took it out of the rule book — high school and college makes it mandatory — and in our mind that is how it should be and will be in 2013.”

In addition to requiring thigh and knee pads, the NCAA also made the mouth guard a mandatory piece of football equipment nearly 40 years ago. The NFL still has not. Active players are also to blame for the lack of rule mandating the use of a mouth guard as they have not embraced new safer equipment. Josh Katzowitz writes for CBSsports.com, and he documented this reluctance to embrace new padding,

“Whether it’s specially-designed helmets or mouthpieces that could reduce the instances of concussions, players, for the most part, seem uninterested in trying something new that could help. The NFLPA should make them care by agreeing to make mouthpieces mandatory.”

I agree with Katzowitz, the NFLPA needs to protect players - even if it’s from their own ignorance. In October 2009 and January 2010, the United States House of Representatives held Committee hearings looking into the legal issues relating to football and head injuries. During these Hearings Smith testified, saying that,

“My number one priority is to protect those who play and have played the game. There is no interest greater than their health and safety…On behalf of those who play and those who played this game, we are committed to getting the right answers, to work with everyone who has the goal of protecting our players, and serve as a model for football at every level.”

If the NFL and NFLPA really want to truly serve as role models, then why haven’t they made the mouth guard a mandatory piece of equipment? In my opinion it’s due to one simple reason. It would be viewed as an admission of guilt that mouth guards could have played a role in reducing or preventing concussions. At the same time, NFL owners don’t want to mandate the use of the mouth guards, because it would weaken their defense against a class-action lawsuit which has been filed against them by 3,000 veterans.

But what’s the NFLPA’s excuse? It’s basically the same as the NFL’s. They’re afraid that they too will be named as a defendant in future concussion lawsuits and they’re in agreement with owners when it comes to the argument that there is no reliable evidence. If that’s the case, then when will the NFL or NFLPA conduct specific medical research on mouth guards? They both spent millions on research that led to the design of the Riddell “Revolution” helmet, so what’s the holdup with mouth guards? For the time being, it appears that the NFL and NFLPA are content to neglect the mandatory use of the smallest and least expensive piece of equipment in the NFL.

But even if there was no conclusive research or scientific evidence, wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of caution and possibly make the game safer for all players by making the mouth guard mandatory?

While the NFL and NFLPA play politics with this issue, more and more players will be injured and this can’t be allowed to continue. If Commissioner Goodell and the DeMaurice Smith are really serious about making the game safer, then they both need to agree to make the mouth guard a mandatory piece of equipment. If they won’t do it, then maybe some additional Congressional hearings should happen.
 

Jeff Nixon was a first-team all American defensive back at the University of Richmond in 1978. Nixon then went on to play in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills from 1979-1984 as a defensive back before his career was ended by knee injuries. Nixon still holds the Bills records for takeaways in a single game with 4. After retiring from the NFL, Nixon worked from 1988-2000 as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He also serves as an NFL analyst for WKBW-TV in Buffalo and hosts “The Jeff Nixon Sports Report” on VoiceAmerica radio. He currently resides in Buffalo.