The NFL’s Concussion Crackdown: A No-Brainer

December 10th, 2010 at 2:57 pm | 8 Comments |

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Sometimes, buy the amazing thing about a debate is that we’re having it.  Controversy over the NFL’s effort to reduce concussions and other preventable injuries falls into that category.  How could anyone object to fines levied against players for “helmet to helmet” hits and slamming a “defenseless player?”

It’s widely but falsely believed that the NFL has suffered a spike in player concussions.  In fact, recipe we’ve simply experienced a greater ability to diagnose concussions.  NFL players have always suffered more than their share of head injuries, sick which helps explain an unnerving datum: the life expectancy for an NFL player is 52, a few decades less than the rest of us.

This makes all the more staggering the opposition to the crackdown on hits known to cause head injuries.  The resistance, I believe, stems from a flawed premise – the notion that increasing restrictions on tackling will eventually convert football into a sport we don’t recognize.  The idea is that violence permeates the game, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy watching large men knock each other silly should change the channel.

In reality, seeing smash-mouth play as essential to football is an insult to the players, a failure to appreciate their sensational athleticism.  Never mind the uncanny mental and physical precision with which Tom Brady and Peyton Manning pick apart defenses, the balletic running of Adrian Peterson, the agility of receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, and the ability of cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis to shadow such receivers.  Everyone knows about the “skill” positions.  Let’s talk about the linemen – the nameless and faceless 300 pound guys who engage in hand to hand combat.

It’s easy to think of these guys (when we think of them at all) as overgrown freaks more than anything else.  But linemen run the 40 yard dash in roughly five seconds.  The NFL wannabe who takes much longer can forget it.  That may seem odd, given that linemen rarely have to run 40 yards, but speed is regarded as proxy for quickness, agility, and other necessary skills.  NFL linemen are not just behemoths who can bench-press your family: they’re blessed with off-the-charts athletic ability.

If you were out getting popcorn during the prologue of The Blind Side, by the end of the film you may have wondered why college coaches traversed the country to recruit Michael Oher.  The guy is good, but he’s an offensive lineman.   His main job is to put his enormous body in between the quarterback and some defensive lineman’s enormous body.   Isn’t there an endless supply of young men who can perform that narrow task competently?

Actually, no.  That’s why left tackles are the second highest paid players in football.  As Michael Lewis explained in the book that gave rise to the movie, Lawrence Taylor ushered in a generation of outside linebackers and defensive ends whose combination of power and quickness made them almost unblockable.  To protect the quarterback’s “blind side” from these wonders of nature requires a similar (and extremely rare) combination of size and uber-athleticism.

All of which is to say that NFL players – at all positions – are athletes gifted almost beyond imagination.  They display these gifts on every play, sometimes in obvious ways that the casual fan can’t miss, sometimes more subtly in ways one appreciates with more viewing (and good color commentators).  And many NFL games lack memorable hits, yet fans don’t go home lamenting that no one was laid out.

The notion that football players must suffer brain damage and die young to protect the integrity of their game is appalling, all the more so because it rests on the misconception that football cannot be an entertaining and compelling sport unless players are allowed to maim one another.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • DFL

    The NFL crackdown on players using their helmet as a weapon is wise. However, just for the sake of argument, I wonder if the problem could be solved by going back to the old leather helmet. With their own heads only protected by leather, perhaps players wouldn’t spear as many do now.

  • balconesfault

    If you want to reduce concussions … start by strictly limiting substitutions.

    If you wanted to REALLY reduce concussions … change the rules to make most players play both sides of the ball.

    Continuously being able to cycle in fresh legged behemoths who weigh 260 and can accelerate at an amazing speed is one of the things that makes the NFL so dangerous. The momentum out there is frightening. All the helmet technology in the world … and helmets are amazing today compared to 30 years ago … can’t keep up.

    Make those guys spend more time on the field, and you take the starch out of them … and everyone will be the safer for it.

  • Drosz

    “Make those guys spend more time on the field, and you take the starch out of them … and everyone will be the safer for it.”

    I disagree with that. I assume you believe it would merely slow the momentum and guys wouldn’t be able to run as hard, but I don’t see that happening. You would exhaust your players and that’s even more dangerous. Exhausted (not necessarily tired, but exhausted) players would only result in more injuries in my opinion.

    When you get tired, you get sloppy. When you get sloppy, you get hurt. Many injuries occur from hits, hard falls, and awkward, conflicting movements you are unable to react to quick enough or with enough strength to protect yourself.

    When you start approaching your limits, you compensate for the loss of energy sometimes at the expense of protecting yourself and things get by you that otherwise never would…like that 250 linebacker just in the corner of your eye or that wide reciever who you think is too small to do much damage, cracking back full speed on your exposed rib cage…both of whom will make you pay for not reacting to their presence sooner.

    Placing an exhausted player on the field is like throwing red meat in a lion’s cage.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Roger Goodell’s campaign against concussions is pure grandstanding bullshit. If he were truly sincere about stemming the tide of head injuries and neurological damage to players (and who isn’t seriously heartbroken about the head injury-related suffering of former Patriots LB Teddy Johnson?), then why is he pushing for an eighteen game schedule, in which players will be exposed to injury for an additional 120 minutes every season? (And anticipating an objection here: even if two pre-season games are eliminated to make room for the two new regular season games, let’s not forget that pre-season games feature very little in the way of actual hitting.)

    I find it shocking (though not, given the general ignorance of the typical sports fan, surprising) that so few people view Roger Goodell with the skepticism that he, like any public figure, deserves. He is, after all, the SON OF A POLITICIAN, and a notoriously slippery one at that. Roger Goodell learned at a very young age about the finer points of political disingenuousness from his father Charles. James Buckley was definitely on to something back in 1970.

    I seriously hope James Harrison– the new Rodney Harrison!– keeps it up with his devestating cracks against opposing receivers and running backs, $25,000 fines be damned. Real NFL fans know that defense and big hits are what the game is all about, and not all the Disneyfied 400-yard passing stuff (no insult intended to my man #12, but still) that has come to define it. I mean, can anyone imagine the defensive monsters of yesteryear– Mike Haynes, Singeltary, Tippett, Dent, LT, Ronnie Lott, Pepper Johnson, Carl Banks, Rodney Harrison, Ted Washington– playing in Roger Goodell’s quasi-flag football league?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Drosz: good point about about exhausted players being more vulnerable to injuries. But it begs the question as to why a player in, say, the Colts system would be more tired (and thus exposed) than a player in, say, Belichick’s or Mike Smith’s system.

    Just look at the Colts game plan on offense. Despite having two quality first round backs, they scarcely ever run the ball. Manning throws on virtually every play, and usually right up the middle, too. No wonder Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark are on the IR, and that Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon are constantly banged up, whereas skill players on more balanced pass/run offenses like ATL and NE are pretty healthy. (Although I realize this doesn’t explain Joseph Addai’s poor health. He’s merely a pussy, and WAY overrated.)

    Another instructive example: look at the way Denver went through running backs in the immediately post-Elway years of the early 2000s, when Shanahan was calling for the run about 2/3rds of the time. Brian Griese never threw the ball, and some poor tailback was constantly getting waylaid and then sent to the training room during the game. Hence Shanahan’s famous (and totally bogus) “plug in a running back” system.

    If, as I suspect, a lot of the injuries to offensive skill players are the result of an imbalanced game plan, then what can the league do to prevent them, aside from emasculating the game? Does anyone seriously think that Roger Goodell can regulate Shanahan’s or Tom Moore’s play calling? There really isn’t a desirable solution to any of this.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and please, more sports columns on Frum Forum! Get rid of Vivian Darkbloom and add a berth for MLB or college hoops.

  • Drosz

    Joseph Addai…ugh, huge disappointment, agree with that assessment.

    And I see your point on playcalling. And I think you’re right, I don’t see a good solution to that.

    On the playcalling note , though, you would figure the nature of the game would iron that out itself. But you might also think that Manning is about the best hands to place your offensive fortunes in. However, it doesn’t go so well when there’s noone to catch it. Usually, you use your running game to open the passing game or vice versa, but if noone can stop your passer, why run it much? Many folks would answer…to control the tempo of the game and give your defense some resting time. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

    And it might be fixing itself this year for the Colts. They’re hurting this year and the All-Pass All-the-Time offense is faltering a bit lately. Maybe the nature of the game will work it out after all….I guess that doesn’t help those guys who have been knocked silly numerous times already, though.

    As for Harrison—love the guy, of course (Steelers fan, so it’s obligatory). I love defensive football, so he’s right up my alley. But he’s doled out some hits that he really should’ve been fined for making. OTOH, he’s getting a bum rap and getting called for even legal hits now. They’ve gone a bit overboard on him in my opinion.

    I think fines and penalties are about the best way to handle it. People will make mistakes and go helmet-to-helmet, but with the fines and penalties in place, it might stop folks from doing it on purpose. That’s about the best outcome you can come up with without damaging the nature of the game. And “smash-mouth” football as the author calls it, is what I like. Toughing it out on the field IS good football to me. You can have the fastest players on Earth, but if you’re team is getting out muscled, you have very little chance of winning. That doesn’t have to mean full sprint collisions all the time either; good tackles rarely result from someone sprinting toward the ball carrier, you have to break down and gain your balance to make good tackles. You may not see it in the middle of the pile, but that’s what’s happening 95% of the time…that’s football and I don’t think that’s an insult at all.

    But what if you don’t like the nature of the game? Then you get Mr. Hirsch’s style game…basically, let the offense score because the best defense you can use is like a basketbell or soccer type D. You can stand in front of them, but you can’t touch ‘em.

  • PracticalGirl

    DFL:

    There are decent statistical evidence that would support your claim of superior helmets contributing to more and more severe concussions. Leather helmets? Eh, a bit too far. But should they get rid of the face guards? The stats would indicate that, as the face (and especially eyes) became less vulnerable-and less of a worry to players-the hits were ON and the concussions increased. There’s a small but stubborn contingent trying to make this case to the NCAA and even youth leagues right now.

    Pro football? Meh. College? HUGE FAN, and a friend to several Oregon Ducks who are going to Glendale for the national championship. GO DUCKS!!!