Ever since I read about Alex Karras suing the NFL because they misled players about the risk of head injuries and were negligent about their treatment, a nagging thought keeps rattling around in my brain: Is the NFL the only culpable party regarding head injuries?
Karras has always been one of my favorite players…heck, he’s one of the people on my list with whom I would love to sit down and have a conversation. And it wouldn't be just about football.
It’s sad to hear that he can no longer enjoy the things that he loved and is suffering from dementia. However, football was the path he chose in life. And from the first time he or any kid put on the pads, they knew from that point on, they were entering into a life of constant car crashes.
Much of what was written regarding the New Orleans Saints' bounty system was equally disturbing. Was the punishment of suspensions and the lengths for all the parties involved appropriate? That’s open to debate. However, I would say that most of us can agree that punishment was required.
But again, were those identified in this scheme the only ones culpable? As each player advances from one level to the next, from grade-school football to the NFL, defensive players are encouraged to make hits on wide receivers, running backs, and most of all, quarterbacks so hard that they question their sanity to actually play the game.
One of my favorite books, The Franchise by Peter Gent, talks of a scouting report of Texas Pistols star quarterback Taylor Rusk. As he is reading, he notes how the reports states that he doesn’t like to get hit, doesn’t like pain. He looks to his coach and asks, “I’m supposed to like pain?”
The book was written in 1983 as a work of fiction. But, I suspect that since Gent played in the NFL, first as a defensive back before switching to wide receiver, there were kernels of truth. His most famous books, North Dallas Forty and The Franchise, offer unique perspectives into the NFL and the increasing levels of violence as certain careers progressed.
What I draw from all of this is that choices were made by both coaches and players. In North Dallas Forty, a young wide receiver sustains a knee injury. He is pressured by coaches to take shots of cortisone to mask the injury in order to get him back into the game. He refuses, which allows Phillip Elliot, a wide receiver who has been put through the ringer, a chance to return to glory. He is in the same room as the injured player and takes a shot of cortisone right in front of him, which signifies that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field.
I am not proposing that the NFL turn the league into nothing more than a touch-football game. I love seeing the big, albeit clean, hits defensive players put on wide receivers, running backs, and most of all, quarterbacks. As of late, the NFL has taken huge strides in the right direction in protecting the players.
However, I take that with a grain of salt. It wasn’t done out of a necessity to protect the players, it was done more out of a necessity to protect a commodity. After all, take out a Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers or a Drew Brees, and those teams become less appealing to the fans. Less appeal means less ticket sales, which mean franchises lose money.
Which brings me to the current state of the game. I’m not so naïve that I don’t understand that the NFL is a business. An owner is a slave to the almighty dollar, so any owner needs to do whatever it takes to put the most marketable team on the field. Take out the top-drawing player and you lose money.
From my perspective, it starts with the players' coaches early in their careers. Good coaches will stress more about teamwork and proper playing techniques rather than teaching players to become human missiles on search-and-destroy missions each time the ball is snapped.
Injuries are part of the game. Football is a violent sport. These two statements have been said over and over for the past 80 years. And as the game progressed, so did the equipment. Leather helmets gave way to hard ones. To some coaches, these newer helmets were viewed as a weapon. Players were coached to lead with their heads to cause as much damage as possible.
We, and I use the royal we, have cheered for man-against-man combat since the Roman times. The battles that go between two players on today’s football field isn’t that far removed from the days of gladiators. One exception is that a battle on the field of an NFL game doesn’t end with the death of an opponent.
Rules were put in place to protect players. But really, they weren’t effective until specific penalties were created specifying face-mask, clothes-line and horse-collar tackles. If you look back at games played in the 60’s and 70’s, those games were flat-out hand-to-hand combat between defensive and offensive players.
And while the focus was put on to hand-cuff defensive players, let’s not give offensive players a get-out-of-jail-free card. Offensive-line players would often do many unspeakable things to defensive-line players to get an edge. Wide receivers would practically mug a cornerback to get past him. Running backs would grab face masks while giving stiff arms to gain extra yardage.
The most glaring, one-sided mess in all of this is the penalties protecting the quarterback. While I don’t want to see any quarterback get injured so badly they are out of the game, I also don’t want to see defensive players getting flagged for roughing the passer after merely touching one after a pass . Some of those 15-yard penalties seem to have been assessed for a defensive player simply looking at the quarterback funny.
Quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. And while I agree that they should be the most protected, they shouldn’t be sheltered from taking hits.
I know that quarterbacks take hits…some have even taken illegal hits without the defense getting flagged for it. But for those, as far as I’m concerned, if the flag isn’t thrown, the player didn’t do anything wrong.
Players have lost the art of tackling. Too often do players want to make the big hit to get on SportsCenter. And too often those players get on the air but for the wrong reason…they bounce off the player who remains upright and run 60 yards for the score.
I played football in high school. And while I never made it any further, I knew the best way to get any player on the ground was to aim for the waist and wrap up the legs. A player that weighs 175 pounds can bring down a player that weighs 240 pounds by wrapping up the legs. If the guy with the ball can’t move his legs, he isn’t going anywhere.
Rule changes are only so effective. The culture of the game, from high school to college to the NFL, needs to change from making players into weapons to players with football abilities. Players that know how to tackle without sustaining serious injury to another or themselves. Players can still put a great hit on an opposing quarterback that will give him happy feet later in the game or cause a wide receiver to think twice about going for that catch over the middle. But, it can be done in a way that keeps everyone as safe as possible.
In order to get players to change, rules can be used, and they have to be strict and relevant to any player, regardless of star quality. You lead with your head, you are out of the game and fined $10,000. Do it again, you are out of the game, fined $20,000 and suspended for four games. Third time, out of the game, $50,000 out for the next 12 games.
Harsh? Surely. But it would force players to think twice about launching themselves at players. It would also force coaches to teach their players different tactics and techniques. The game would be played as it was meant to, as a struggle between offense and defense, and not as a game where a bounty system could even be considered.
Perhaps I am over-simplifying the whole situation….but perhaps, just perhaps, the NFL, the players and the coaches are over thinking it as well.