Announcing my medical retirement from college football was unbearable. On the verge of making football my career, I felt as if I had a defining part of my identity ripped away.
While I regret the misfortune of experiencing several football-related concussions, I don’t regret playing the game that I love. And I certainly never wondered whether any quick-fix rule from the NCAA would have prolonged my career.
Football is a contact sport, and there is always a risk of serious injury.
The new targeting rule—college football’s magic wand to supposedly protect student-athletes—relies on the faulty premise that we can eliminate the big hits, freeing the game of any imperfections.
Despite these noble intentions, administrators are missing the big picture.
It’s not the severity of the hit, but rather the frequency of hits that compromises the long-term health of student-athletes.
Think about the constant battering that players endure throughout a game, throughout a season, throughout a career. That’s the issue at hand.
Fans see the high-impact hits that make the highlight reels: a safety tearing upfield to unleash a devastating blow on a wide receiver, or a running back lowering his shoulder into a smaller cornerback. But those hits are not necessarily causing the majority of head injuries.
Most of my concussions occurred on routine plays and drills. The misfortune came during the execution.
Some players get hurt as a result of poor fundamentals or accidental hits; others fall victim to the game’s fast pace.
When we played against Oregon and its notoriously fast-paced spread offense, the biggest safety concern was fatigue. When you have less time in between plays, the fatigue factor can leave players even more vulnerable with their positioning. That’s when serious injuries occur over and over again.
There’s a difference between making football safe and making it safer—the former is simply an illusion, distracting us from achieving real solutions.
The targeting rule is riddled with flaws, none greater than its blind dependence on good intentions. Unfortunately, it places pressure in all the wrong areas.
The NCAA has instructed officials to call more penalties for excessive and flagrant headshots. There are a few problems with this "solution."
First, it leaves too much room for officials to determine what constitutes a flagrant or accidental hit. Such subjectivity will give players and coaches little clarity on how to make the right adjustments. When you’re on the field trying to make plays, it’s far more realistic to teach players to protect themselves than it is to teach them to protect their opponents.
Second, it encourages offensive coordinators to call more plays that put receivers in “defenseless” situations. Consider the practicality on defensive players, who can no longer play the pass, fearing that any hit may lead to an immediate ejection. But even worse, what message are we sending by triggering offensive plays that leave receivers more vulnerable? How does that scenario promote player safety?
Third, it jeopardizes the depth chart of defensive units. Suffice it to say that defensive coordinators will have their hands full, trying to plug holes after an ejection.
Let’s be clear. It’s admirable that the NCAA and conference officials are trying to reduce the number of injuries in college football. But this rule change may not deliver the desired results.
The most critical reforms will not come from minor rule changes, but rather a cultural shift. We need to change the pace of the game, teach the proper fundamentals of tackling at every level and require a shared responsibility from every individual involved.
Let’s stop glorifying the physical impact of one play, and let’s start talking about how to reduce the cumulative effect of repeated hits, particularly to the head.
One incident of brain trauma, which can now be diagnosed on the sidelines, should be enough to keep that player out until he is medically cleared to return. The NCAA and the individual conferences need to enforce such protocol.
Players and coaches need to accept greater responsibility as well. Injured players are solely concerned with returning to the field, fearing the possibility of being replaced. Student-athletes must resist that pressure, and coaching staffs need to enforce medical evaluations without exception.
There is no investment more important in college sports than the health and safety of student-athletes.
But if we’re going to create any lasting change, then we need to understand the difference between noble intentions and effective solutions. No magic wand exists. The onus is on each of us.
Patrick Larimore is the founder of My Head Hurts, an online community for brain trauma survivors and others to share powerful stories and access valuable resources. Visit the website at www.MyHeadHurts.co or follow him on Twitter at @PLari42.