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Head Shots: Part of the Game?

2010 October 19

The anticipated move by the NFL to use suspensions to penalize (some)  and deter “head shots” to players has already generated substantial feedback.  On ESPN Monday Night Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, and Matt Millen seemed ready to deliver a head shot to Roger Goodell for consideration of such a thing.  Their reasoning — football is a “violent game,” “your taking away the physicality,” “this is what fans want to see.”  The banality of their comments eerily remind me of scenes from Rollerball (for those alive in the 70s) or Running Man (8os) and at cross purposes with the kind of vilification of the “play-at-any-cost” mentality in North Dallas Forty (film and book).

Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel provides a much more balanced and thoughtful discussion of the issues.  As he notes, fines just don’t raise the price high enough to deter overly violent actions.  He quotes former NFL safety and heavy hitter Rodney Harrison from NBC’s Sunday night broadcast:

“You didn’t get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,” Harrison said. “You got my attention when I got suspended, and I had to get away from my teammates, and I disappointed my teammates from not being there.”

Wetzel observes that finding the right balance of deterrence without overly restraining players won’t be easy.  Protections for QBs show that, where the protections sometimes make a defensive lineman’s job almost impossible.  Nonetheless, the delicacy and difficulty of the balance should not keep the league from trying to extend protections to vulnerable players from very dangerous actions.  At one time a Jack Tatum or two roamed the NFL.  Now, every team has a Tatum-wannabe or two with dangerous hits repeated several times each Sunday.

I’ll readily admit, this is a visceral issue with me and not purely analytical.  As a high school player, I witnessed a rival team send their 225 pound, All-State defensive tackle to nail our kicker (a good size guy) on the opening kickoff (this came in vogue for a few years in the mid 1970s long before the Buddy Ryan-Cowboys incident).   The player delivered an unexpected, devastating blow to our kicker just as his foot came back to the ground.  Our kicker staggered to his feet.  Their player was carted off the field 20 minutes later, paralyzed from a broken neck.  Just an unfortunate consequence of a violent game?   It was sickening, and even though “legal” by the rules at the time, utterly stupid.    It was violence for violence and intimidation — their coach wanted to “send a message.”  He wanted the kicker to think about the next kick, just as these hits are meant to deter future receptions over the middle.  He sent a message alright — that he was an idiot.  The player delivering the hit made it dangerous to himself by leading with the crown of his helmet (as in the DeSean Jackson hit), but even without this, it was a cheap shot on a defenseless player.  If that’s “part of the game,” why not change the game?

I have no doubt that some fans want to see these ferocious hits. A few probably even enjoy seeing players knocked out or staggering off the field — should leagues pander to that?  Some NHL fans want to see fights.  Leagues have to determine their stance on such matters.  Personally, I’m siding with Goodell on this.  Should current and former players (like Millen, Young, and Dilfer) carry weight.  Players input should be heard.   A strong case can be made, however, that an outside force like the commissioner needs to set the bounds. There are substantial internal political problems (just as with the steroid issue).   Majority voting is no panacea.  Wide receivers bear most of the brunt from these shots, but make up only a small voting block.  Among current and former football players, even ones who may cringe at some of the shots, there is a high level of “this is football” machismo.  Fraternities, of all sorts, usually defend hazing even when it’s dangerous as part of some rite of passage and can use external constraints.

8 Responses
  1. Matt C. permalink
    October 19, 2010

    Real Sports with Bryant Gumble did a story on this. You can find it here

    Basically, you can stop brain injuries with the proper teaching of tackling. There is no reason to put more football players at risk. You can still be agressive without hitting someone in the head. Just ask many of Millen, Dilfer and Youngs brain damaged friends who can barely walk or even remember their names.

  2. Yvan Kelly permalink
    October 19, 2010

    This may sound odd, but can padding be placed on the outside of helmets as well? Like a padded dashboard in a car, perhaps that could soften the impact to a degree.

  3. zlionsfan permalink
    October 19, 2010

    I found it nearly impossible to understand how a man who was forced to end his career due to head injuries (Young) could argue, basically, that those hits should be part of the game. Millen has spent years demonstrating his complete inability to understand virtually every part of the game (odd, given that he was once a decent announcer), so that I could get …

    The people who say it’s part of the game … I don’t get that at all. I don’t understand why the NFL was making all these noises about player safety, yet there isn’t even a rule in the book (well, the last version I saw) that specifically prohibits blows to the head. (For example, Harrison’s shot on Joshua Cribbs was supposedly legal.) You can’t slap someone’s helmet with an open hand, and you can’t hit a quarterback or a defenseless player in the head, but a ballcarrier is fair game.

    I don’t understand why it takes multiple incidents of players spearing other players for the NFL to finally sit up and say gee, maybe this isn’t a good idea. (I’m not sure where I heard it, but someone mentioned that spearing isn’t completely outlawed in the NFL.)

    I may be wrong, but I feel like I’ve heard some (reasonable) ex-players say this: see what you hit. Can’t it be that simple? If you’re looking at someone as you hit them, you won’t be using the crown of your head. Sure, it’ll cut down on the number of “spectacular” hits, but it’ll also cut down on the number of spectacular injuries … and maybe it will also start to narrow the current gap between life expectancy of an NFL player and life expectancy of a man of similar age with no football experience.

  4. Dan permalink
    October 20, 2010

    Sometimes a head shot is unavoidable when a receiver ducks at the last second and puts his helmet in the way of the defender’s helmet. But most of these hits and resultant injuries are the deliberate consequence of the defender’s actions. It helps their team if Jerry Rice misses some plays or is knocked out of the game. The backup running back will remember the hit that took out Emmit Smith.

    And the NFL is just a tip of all the football played in this country. College players on down are just as susceptible to injuries as those in the NFL. Merrill Hoge says the answer is easy – just teach the players to lead with their shoulder pads and aim for the numbers. If only it were that simple. It’s one thing for the relatively small number of teams and coaches in the NFL to insist on proper tackling. It’s another for the thousands of schools to do so.

    Players have to be automatically suspended for head shots. It has to be dealt with the way the NHL did away with bench clearing brawls and stick swinging fights. Yes, those fans that look forward to Jacked-Up hits each week will be disappointed but so what? If a sport has to depend on putting the players in heightened danger each week it deserves to go the way of roller derby.

    The NFL has a serious concussion problem that they have just started addressing. Back in the ’60s and ’70s you had 240 lb. defensive ends and 220 lb. linebackers. Today the players are so much bigger and faster which increases the severity of head injuries. I am not a doctor but I doubt human skulls have gotten proportionally stronger.

    The insane thing is the NFL wants to add two games to the regular season.

    Yvan, my understanding with padding on the outside could cause more neck injuries if helmets remain in contact longer.

  5. October 22, 2010

    Brian,

    I don’t think the player delivered a message, the coach did, and players always pay the price. I also feel sorry for the kids who deliver these shots and deal with the consequences later in life. The pro players are old enough to know better, that said they should fine the teams too.

    NFL Revenues are roughly 8 BILLION per year. According to NFL charities “$1.5 million is allocated each year for grants in areas including sports injury prevention, innovations in injury treatment, and other related issues that affect the health and performance of athletes.” That is .02% of revenue in a sport that has an average life expectancy of the athletes in the mid 50′s.

  6. Greg Pinelli permalink
    October 22, 2010

    I’ve watched football far longer than Millen or Young…and the idea that head hunting is a legitimate part of the game is nonsense. One really has to wonder whether Steve was concussed so many times he literally lost his common sense.

    The NFL (and NCAA) have cracked down on face mask violations for exactly the same reasons that violent head hunting (including the forearm shiv involved in the latest brutal takeout) needs to involve severe on field penalties..ejections..and suspensions. ANY fan who says that these blatant attempts at injuring opponents are part of the game needs to find another sport..like WWF or UFC…..

  7. Nick Evans permalink
    October 25, 2010

    I don’t see how it’s difficult to “find the right balance” here. Just copy rugby: no tackles above the shoulder allowed. Simple.

  8. Azi permalink
    October 26, 2010

    it may be that 5, 10 or even 15K$ were not enough to get the payers’ attention, but 50,000-75,000$ are.
    The evidence? See Harrison’s retirement knee-jerk reaction and the general play the week after. What we should look for now is consistency from the NFL management team. If they continue to preach, threaten and enforce we just might see tacking again in the NFL (and as a consequence in the college and high-school levels too…)

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