They are itchy. They are awkward. They are cumbersome and largely unattractive and, when used over a long period of time, can develop what has been generously described as “a disgusting crust.” Also, they frequently smell as bad as an unventilated horse stall, and it is debatable whether they work as intended.
“Yeah, but other than that, we love them,” Ross Pierschbacher, an offensive lineman for Alabama’s football team, said Saturday. (He was kidding.)
Pierschbacher was talking about knee braces, and, despite the fact he is not actively recovering from an injury, he wears a pair in every practice and game for the Crimson Tide.
All of the Alabama linemen take part in what is known as prophylactic bracing. So do most of the linemen for Clemson, which faced Alabama here in the national championship game Monday night. So do the big men at Louisiana State. And at Florida. And at Ohio State. Michigan made a rule about bracing just this season. And, lest it seem like a top-tier-only phenomenon, the behemoths at North Texas do it, too.
Brian Moore, a longtime executive at DonJoy, which manufactures braces, said he believed the practice of prophylactic bracing began in the early 1990s, though it did not gain traction at the highest level of college football until later that decade. The premise is that the braces are needed to protect the vulnerable joints of linemen, who are often hit on the side or the back of a knee by other players who are falling in the trenches, near the line of scrimmage.
In fact, according to Moore, just about every Division I team in the country now requires its linemen to wear knee braces in practice, if not in games, even if those players have never had a knee injury.
“It’s true; the participation rate is near 100 percent,” said Brian Pietrosimone, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who has studied prophylactic bracing at length.
“But,” he added, “they’re using these things without much evidence to support that it works. In fact, the evidence is troublingly inconclusive.”
Of course, Moore, the executive from DonJoy, disagrees. In a telephone interview, he cited three studies indicating that wearing braces could help linemen avoid the most severe types of injuries. When a reporter pointed out that all three studies had been conducted more than 15 years ago, he said the research was still valid.
Pietrosimone, however, was part of a group that did a systematic review of all studies on whether knee braces prevent injury in 2008 and concluded that the issue was not so clear-cut. The methodology of the studies was flawed in many cases, the review found, and several studies even indicated that wearing braces might increase — not decrease — the risk of knee injury.
With a custom pair of braces costing upward of $1,000, the amount of money a program spends on outfitting all of its “high-risk” players — generally seen as linemen, some tight ends and some linebackers — is significant. Yet in a copycat sport, the lack of a medical consensus has not stopped the movement from spreading.
“There was actually a similar systematic review done more recently by a different group, and they came up with the same answer,” Pietrosimone said in an interview. “In some ways, it has become like taping ankles. Just about everyone wraps tape on players’ ankles prophylactically, and there is, in reality, very little evidence to support doing that.”
Such trends are not uncommon in sports: The use of kinesio tape increased exponentially after the 2012 Olympics, when many beach volleyball players were seen using it, and Michael Phelps helped popularize the ancient Chinese healing practice of cupping during the 2016 Rio Games.
Prophylactic bracing among college linemen, however, is hardly a fad. Danny Poole, who is Clemson’s director of sports medicine and has been at the university for more than three decades, estimated that he began endorsing the practice 15 years ago. (Clemson also requires players to have either tape or a brace on their ankles.) Poole said he was largely indifferent to skepticism that might appear in academic journals, preferring a more direct evaluation.
“I’m not a big, huge studies guy,” Poole said. “I like to hear from the players. And the first time you hear, ‘That brace saved me today,’ you know it’s doing something.”
In interviews with several players, coaches and trainers here for the national championship game, many cited instances when they had found a brace bent from a heavy blow and said they shuddered to think what might have happened to the knees inside those braces if there had been no protection. Yet four of the six players could also recall instances when they, or a teammate, had sustained a serious injury despite wearing a brace.
“I really don’t know if they work or not, but rules are rules,” Clemson lineman Mitch Hyatt said with a shrug. “I just wish they weren’t so irritating.”
Players’ gripes about the braces run the gamut: Many do not like having to show up to practice 10 minutes early to put them on. Some do not like how the braces feel. And just about everyone does not like their distinct odor after several months of practices and games.
Pierschbacher also took issue with the entire brace aesthetic, describing them as “robotic,” and complaining that “you don’t feel all swagged out like you should” when wearing them.
Tyrone Crowder, who plays guard for Clemson, said he had never worn braces in high school and was “not that stoked” when he arrived at the university and was told that he had to use them in practices.
“I actually don’t wear them in games because I just can’t,” he said. “When I don’t wear them, I feel like I’m flying around. When I do, it’s like my legs just get so tired.”
Moore noted that today’s braces can weigh less than a pound apiece, and said their use was spreading. Some quarterbacks, he said, have begun wearing braces on their lead legs (which can be rolled into while the player is throwing), and other skill position players are using slimmed-down versions of the linemen’s brace.
Bracing is not so widespread in the NFL, in part because the collective bargaining agreement makes it more difficult for teams to impose blanket equipment requirements. Some teams, like the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys, strongly encourage players to wear braces, but many college players cannot wait to reach the professional level so they can shed their team-imposed restraints.
Most notable among this group is Cam Robinson, Alabama’s top lineman, a junior who has been coy about whether he will leave the university and declare himself eligible for the NFL draft this spring. Asked about knee braces on Saturday, Robinson remained careful not to tip his hand about his plans, but he was abundantly clear about a particular decision he had made.
“Whenever it happens,” he said, “I won’t be wearing those things anymore.”