Monday, November 1, 2010

Football Violence: How Much Is Too Much?

As anyone who's ever been a fan of football will attest, violent hits come with the turf. No defensive lineman will simply give you the yard you seek. No linebacker will let a receiver make a catch without that receiver paying a price. It's the violent hit that gives many defensive stars their ultimate satisfaction. Some hits have been so devastating that they get talked about and remembered for years. Jamal Lewis's hit on Kellen Winslow in 2008 changed the momentum of a game, receiving high praise from passionate fans.

So is this what football is about?

Yesterday while looking for something to read in the airport I picked up the current Sports Illustrated with the word CONCUSSIONS emblazoned on the cover. This issue carried a special report on the "hits that are changing the game... and the hits no one is noticing." Evidently there have been just a few too many concussions lately, and the League is stepping in to reduce the number of injuries. But this special report includes new research that shows how even the regular game play is doing brain damage, with subsequent mental slowness and early onset of dementia in many players.

Pro football has always been that way (aggressive, violent) to some extent. Many of these men see themselves as the modern equivalent of Roman gladiators. Except there are rules, and no one is forced to play/fight against his will. What does this say about the fans who watch it? To what extent is the violence part of the reason football remains the dominant spectator sport in America?

What's interesting here is that editor Terry McDonell is arguing for rules changes to make the game safer. The trigger for his speaking up was the October weekend that 12 players suffered head injuries.

One reason the hits are more damaging these days might be because the players are bigger and faster than ever. Also, they have more protective gear on so they feel protected while they are slamming their foes.

Of course football is not the only sport with a violent side. Hockey is notoriously brutal with checks and slams. High sticking is illegal, but crushing a guy into the boards is just part of the guy. A local high school student recently was hospitalized with two broken legs in a hockey game. The checking and slamming begin early. Then there's boxing, where your objective is to slug the other guy into unconsciousness. And Ultimate Fighting, where the objective is to all but kill your opponent with you bare hands.

In 1970 or thereabouts, a young black fellow in my own high school was the last defender left to stop a large fullback sprinting toward the end zone. It was not a championship game. Just another football weekend. He threw himself straight into the runner in a devastating impact that snapped his own neck and left him paralyzed for life. Was it worth it? He was trained to give is all, and he sacrificed his life... but for what?

McDonnell is concerned about what will be happening to pro football players as they damage their brains without even knowing it. Part of the problem is that the helmet itself has become a weapon. He notes that Joe Paterno suggested that we remove the full face mask and return to just having a single bar. Mike Ditka, McDonnel writes, said we would not have helmet to helmet hits if we removed helmets altogether.

This comment made me think of how we never wore pads or helmets but had solid, high contact tackle football for years with no one ever seriously hurt. (Except a broken leg once.) We tackled to tackle but not to take anyone out. We needed everyone to come back the next day so we could play again.

If you're interested in more on this topic, I'm sure you know how to find it in Google. It's a subject that won't soon go away.

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