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Helmet Hits, Head Injuries, and the NFL

I enjoyed yesterday's game a great deal, despite the fact that the Steelers seem to like to make us all wonder if something is going to go horribly wrong for as long as possible.  I was naturally quite concerned for the health and well-being of Colt McCoy, who seems like a great kid, and who is related to my daughter-in-law.  I was more than pleased that he got quite a few grass stains on his uniform, but was otherwise unharmed at the close of the game.  I can't say the same for either Joshua Cribbs or Mohamed Massaquoi, unfortunately.  The hits they took are just the sort of thing that the NFL is trying to prevent.  Obviously some of them are inevitable, a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But were both hits completely unavoidable?  Should the NFL tinker with the rules to try to make them rare or non-existent?  Not being omniscient, I can't answer the first question. Here's my take on the second, after the jump:

There was a lot of discussion about the hits in Michael's post-game thread, as one might imagine.  There seem to be three basic positions on the issue:

1.  Those who feel that the violence IS the game, and that any attempt to make the game safer (or "wussify" it, as some would have it) changes its basic character in an unacceptable manner;

2.  Those that don't want to see the game toned down, but don't like to see head hits; and

3.  Those who think that avoiding head injuries is more important than preserving the "historical character" of the game.

I, naturally, fall into category #3.  How could I do otherwise, with a screen name like mine?  But I would like to also argue that the 'historical character' of the game has already changed enormously from its inception, and so preserving the current manifestation of the game is not sufficient reason to stay the hand of the NFL.  Someone who at first glance would appear not to agree with that position is President Theodore F. Roosevelt, who stated in 1905:

I believe in outdoor games, and I do not mind in the least that they are rough games, or that those who take part in them are occasionally injured. I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality which would keep a young man in cotton-wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collar-bone as of serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage.

However, whatever he might have said, he met, also in 1905, with representatives from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to discuss making football a safer game.  That year, there were 18 deaths associated with college football - at this point, there was no "professional" football.  At Roosevelt's insistence, the universities established the National College Athletic Association and the American Football Rules Committee.  You can read a great deal more about it here:

Furthermore, the game has changed tremendously from having a single team that plays both offense and defense to having a number of "specialists" that can be traded in and out of the game.  That in and of itself has made a huge difference in the game.  I remember a very entertaining post during the offseason, in which the poster challenged us to make up an 11-man roster from the current players that would play both sides of the field.  Just realizing how many players who are extremely good at one thing that this would eliminate was very eye-opening to me. 

In other words, there is no reasonable way to argue that it would be wrong to change the game, period, because it changes all the time.  Here is a marvelous quote from Chuck Klosterman's book "Eating the Dinosaur;"

...this is football's interesting contradiction: It feels like a conservative game.  It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values.  But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have - it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal.

  While Klosterman was talking about game strategy in this quote, later in the essay he mentions Roosevelt's interference, which didn't actually lessen the death toll at first. But as Klosterman notes,

...these changes totally reinvented the intellectual potential for football.  It was like taking the act of punching someone in the face and shaping it into boxing.


You can't put the genie back into the bottle.  The research that has come out in the last couple of years about the permanent damage that head injuries/concussions do to the brain is not something that we can overlook or wish away.  As reasonable human beings, we have an obligation to attempt to reduce the incidences of head injury and concussions.  If a better helmet will help, they should come up with a better helmet.  I have trouble seeing how that would alleviate the problem, though, because I gather the damage is done when the brain slops around in the skull, and it's hard to see how a helmet could change that.  But if some genius can figure that out, I'm all for it.  In the meantime, the League has an obligation to keep after this issue, and to their credit, they are taking it very seriously.

I know that many of you are dog lovers, and were revolted by the dog-fighting ring that did Michael Vick in.  And rightly so.  Taking advantage of the loyal nature of a dog to force it to fight other dogs to the death is completely repugnant.  And I suppose that you could say it is different with football players, because they do this willingly, and they are paid lots of money, and they are aware of the possible consequences.  And I will certainly concede that these things do make a difference.  But only to an extent.  I believe that we have a responsibility to protect them from their own fearlessness and foolhardiness.  And I think the key to doing so while preserving football as a game worth watching is the very intellectual nature of the game.  To me, it is like a giant chess match, except interesting.  (I apologize in advance to any chess players out there.) The strategy, the plotting, the reacting to what looks the defense presents you, the ways that strategic geniuses like our own Dick LeBeau come up with to disguise what they are planning - it makes for exciting theater.  Surely it isn't necessary to allow ways of tackling that may end up half-killing someone, or even completely killing them.  It just isn't worth it to make the game a bit more violent.  As long as football is a contact sport, I suspect that some head blows are inevitable, but I'm all in favor of any and all rule changes that would reduce them to a very occasional event.

And finally, another quote of Roosevelt's deserves to be thrown out there:

It is a better thing for our colleges to have the average student interested in some form of athletics than to have them all gather in a mass to see other people do their athletics for them.

  Maybe we should all take heed of our former president's advice, and take a break between games to rake some leaves or run around the block.  Maybe then we wouldn't feel the necessity of seeing young men in the prime of their lives risk drooling away their final years. And if that doesn't work, at least the leaves get raked...