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Head Game

As the NFL and its critics fret over a rash of player concussions, one fan discovers a radical solution to save his beloved game.

Author Josh Dean Photography John Kanuit/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Image – John Kanuit/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

AS I WRITE THIS, it is the thick of football season and everyone around me is yelling—about concussions. (Or, as the cover of Sports Illustrated put it, concussions!) This chronically misunderstood head injury has been of increasing interest to football players, coaches and, especially, frothy- mouthed, do-gooding journalists for the past few seasons as the growing body of research shows in clearer and clearer terms that concussions are a plague upon the Nfl(and the sport at large). It’s pretty clear now: Play football at your brain’s peril.

The shouting was cranked to 11 after one particularly brutal October weekend in which University of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet, Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap and Cleveland Browns wide receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi all left the field with concussions. Jackson’s concussion was labeled “severe” and was a result of a dangerous—and illegal—head- first tackle/javelin impersonation by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, who also managed to give himself a concussion on the play (the rare double whammy). And that wasn’t all. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, a human wrecking ball, knocked out two players in the same game, and Zach Follett of the Detroit Lions was carted off the field at Giants Stadium on a stretcher with a head injury. Worst of all, a Rutgers University defensive tackle named Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Army. He may never walk again.

As of mid-October there had been at least 41 concussions suffered by Nflplayers this season, 14 of which were edited into a horrifying video compilation by the website Deadspin that should run on a loop as a precautionary tale in every locker room. Of course, it’s not that different from any number of sequences that have been aired, in celebratory fashion, on ESPN SportsCenter over the years, and an audience of linebackers and safeties—not to say fans—would likely greet it with chest bumps.

So the league is trying to do the only thing it can do: officiate its way around the problem. On the Monday following that bloody weekend, Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said that the league, which already ejected and fined players for illegal hits, would ratchet up suspensions. He issued the following blast of legalese: “There’s strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits.” At which point smoke began to emanate from Harrison’s ears.

The helmet industry also quickly came under fire after New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz wrote a scathing indictment of the state of head protectors, which included the terrifying fact that the organization that established the safety guidelines for helmets is partly made up of and financed by representatives employed by the helmet industry. Oh, brother.

Even former safety Rodney Harrison—the same player who, on the field, was widely considered one of the dirtiest in the game—was up in arms. “Thank God I retired,” he said to a Sports Illustrated reporter.

Here’s the thing: According to a recent study on concussions in football, it’s not these horrific, high-profile hits that are most dangerous to players. It’s the recurrent, low-impact collisions that take place at practice. It turns out the brain doesn’t need to be jarred all that hard to be damaged; jostle it repeatedly and you get similar effects. And since eliminating contact at practice isn’t an option, and considering a player who takes part in minor collisions over 16 games anyway is certainly at risk of retiring a vegetable, there’s really only one solution to this mess. If we’re really serious about solving the problem, we’re going to have to take the advice of Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris, who tweeted: “If it’s too dangerous, then ban the sport n [sic] make it illegal.”

Harris was being facetious—he was angry with the league for lashing out at defenders. But he was also right. If we’re being honest with ourselves the only way to save football players is to ban football.

LET ME MAKE ONE THING CLEAR: I am not advocating the end of football. I love the sport, and, like any football fan, I’ve celebrated big hits. I have, at least once per game for my entire life, upon witnessing a brutal tackle, doubled over in mock pain, and then yelled to whoever was close, “You gotta come see this!” Violent tackles are inarguably an exciting part of the game, for fans and players. NflVP Anderson acknowledged as much, saying, essentially, that part of the enjoyment of football is that some of the violence is appealing.

When Anderson and the NFL announced its stricter policing in part because of the two Cleveland Browns he KO’d, James Harrison threatened to retire, essentially saying he doesn’t know how else to play this game. Harrison very much represents a long- standing way of thinking about hits among players, a thinking embodied best in recent years by Ray Lewis, who once said he didn’t feel he had hit a player hard enough unless it hurt Lewis too.

Harrison is hardly alone in being annoyed with the NFL’s harder line. New England Patriot Tom Brady, the man with the golden jaw, perhaps said it best: “I think we all signed up for this game knowing that it’s dangerous.”

It’s always easy to sermonize from the sidelines. Certainly, there are tackles that are intentionally dirty, but often a defender is sprinting full speed at a runner who is also sprinting full speed and trying not to be tackled. If the defender throws his body at the player— leading with his shoulder, which is the proper technique—and that player moves or ducks, it’s very easy for their helmets to collide unintentionally.

Which is not to say that nothing can be done. Equipment can be improved. Better helmet technology in the 1970s ended the risk of fractured skulls, and there’s reason to think that new designs could lessen the risk of concussions.

There’s also education. Football wears its machismo as cologne and has historically applauded the guy who gets crushed, stumbles off and then returns to game once the ground stops spinning. That is changing. In most cases, players with concussions or even concussion-like symptoms are pulled from games, thanks to trainers who are more aware of head injuries.

Usually. Early in the season, two Philadelphia Eagles—QB Kevin Kolb and linebacker Stewart Bradley— suffered concussions and reentered the game before being pulled for their injuries. That borders on negligence, because the brain is far more susceptible to a second concussion when it’s still recovering from the first.

The facts alone should be scary to players. Concussions ended the careers of Troy Aikman and Al Toon. Retired players Andre Waters and Terry Long committed suicide after long bouts of depression suspected to have resulted from concussions. Add to this a litany of chronic back, knee, hip, shoulder and neck problems, and it makes for tough postretirement years.

And yet the Nflis seriously considering expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games. Maybe a complete ban makes sense after all.

New York–based writer JOSH DEAN wears a helmet when he plays Madden NFL.

One Response to “Head Game”

  1. steve Says:
    January 1st, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    The jaw needs to be secured in order to stabilize the forces transmitted from the helmet. It may be that easy to protect against a condition common in boxers, known as the glass jaw. http://www.mahercor.com has published data supporting a medically correcive divice known to reduce the risk of concussion in NFL players.

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