NFL's Concussion Repercussion: Helmet-To-Helmet Hits Threatening the Game?

Tony AsciCorrespondent IOctober 19, 2010

Both players are injured as D-Jax gets laid out by D-Rob. [US Presswire]
Both players are injured as D-Jax gets laid out by D-Rob. [US Presswire]

Helmet-to-helmet contact.  Devastating hit.  The intent to injure.  Leading with the head.  Serious concussion.

These phrases have been thrown around for the past few days, and the NFL brass is launching an effort to end—not curtail, curb or lessen—egregiously violent collisions in professional football games, starting with contests scheduled for this upcoming weekend.

It’s no secret that today’s game is faster and more violent.  Every player on the field in 2010 is faster than those of 25 or more years ago. 

Today’s players are also leaner.  Gone are the days of the “big hog-mollies.”  Today’s NFL athletes are anything but fat: they are lean, muscular, flexible and athletic at nearly every position.

Because of this transformation, the collisions that occur when two or more of these finely tuned “machines” meet are exponentially more explosive; more violent; more devastating.  And players are sustaining injuries that can’t necessarily be healed: they are suffering brain injuries.

In light of numerous particularly violent hits on display during the NFL’s week six schedule, NFL executives have stated that, without changing any rules, they will elevate the punishment for what they are considering “illegal hits” during game play.

The Steelers’ James Harrison had two vicious hits against Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi of the Cleveland Browns, both of which were hits to the neck or head.

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Philadelphia Eagles wide out DeSean Jackson was the victim of a monster hit and suffered a severe concussion, including memory loss. 

Jackson defenselessly attempted to make a catch, and was crushed by Atlanta Falcons’ defender Dunta Robinson as the two collided helmet-to-helmet.  Both players were injured.

Clearly, the nastiest hit of the weekend was Brandon Merriweather’s hit on Baltimore Ravens’ tight end Todd Heap. 

As Heap attempted to make a grab in the middle of the field, the New England Patriots safety launched his body—helmet first—into Heap’s head and neck region.

ESPN’s Merril Hoge, a former NFL running back who played for the Steelers, spoke at length about the need to reinforce the proper fundamentals of tackling: aiming for the numbers (i.e., the chest and mid-section), using your arms and shoulders, and keeping your head up.

On NBC, former Coach Tony Dungy and ex-NFL bad boy Rodney Harrison (one of the dirtiest players in NFL history) both agreed that the NFL needs to suspend players for violent hits to the head.

Even on the college front, broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit mentioned that defensive players who lead with their head should be removed from the game.

Lost in all this banter and discussion is the idea that officials—the men on the field who are supposed to facilitate the rules and manage a clean contest—were never mentioned.

Often times, we see a vicious hit on the field with no penalty administration.  Then, days later, a fine is levied by the NFL.  What message is this sending our players?  Even worse, what message are we sending young players who watch these games and don’t see a flag for a violent collision?

It’s probably safe to say that nearly everyone agrees that it should be illegal to use the helmet as a weapon, and illegal to hit others in the head, right? 

Within this issue, there are a number of factors that need to be addressed.  There may be an easy way to fix this crisis.  Let’s look at a few of them.

FUNDAMENTALS.  At an early age, players are taught how to play the game of football.  As a player as a kid, and now an official as an adult, I have found there are too many variables in what is being taught.

There used to be a penalty called “spearing” back in the day which prevented players from using their helmets as a weapon.  The flag was usually thrown when someone launched themselves head-first into an opponent’s chest or back.

This penalty was dismissed years ago, and it seems there are coaches around the country who simply aren’t teaching our youth how to properly make a tackle.

As Merril Hoge stated, a proper tackle consists of a defender bringing a ball carrier down with his arm and shoulder pads, leveling him with a solid, clean hit.  A tackler must keep his head up.  My coach used to say, “If you can’t see your opponent’s chest, you’re doing it wrong.”  If a player’s head is down, he risks serious injury on impact.

It might seem elementary, but those shoulder pads aren’t to protect offensive players.  Shoulder pads are to protect defenders.  Shoulder pads are the defender’s weapon, and that’s right out of the Tackling 101 text book.  Tacklers should be laying opponents out with their shoulders, not their helmets.

LEGISLATION.  It’s important for national high school, college and professional leagues to administer clear, concise rules regarding, (1) players using their helmets as a weapon, and (2) blows to the head.

No where in sports do we see such a disparity between the rules as the gap between college and pro football. 

[Okay, that’s not necessarily true: the rules separating college basketball and the NBA are vast as well, but since our focus here is on the NFL, go with it.]

The trickle down effect of the NFL’s rules is that many young people who play football play in Saturday youth leagues.  The only televised football they see on a regular basis are the NFL games on Sundays.

Young players—despite their own rules—emulate what they see on TV during NFL games, and on highlights shown during the week.

There’s nothing wrong with minor rule differences between levels of play, but when the issue is safety, there needs to be one clear, easy to understand, blanket rule for every level, like this:

Any player, whether on offense or defense, who intentionally leads with or initiates contact with his helmet shall be penalized a 15-yard personal foul and may be ejected.

Any player, whether on offense or defense, who intentionally strikes another player in the neck or head shall be penalized a 15-yard personal foul and may be ejected.

That’s clear and concise.  Instill that in every commissioner, official, coach and player from the mini-might leagues to the NFL and it won’t take long to see a change.

ADMINISTRATION.  We’ve talked a lot about the responsibilities of the players, coaches and the powers-that-be who draft the rules.  What about the officials?

In my estimation, the crew in all this mess that has truly dropped the ball is the officiating body who is supposed to be in place to regulate the rules: the men in stripes.

As students in the classroom, there was nothing more frustrating than getting in trouble, and not even realizing when it happened.

Imagine you are sitting in your boring chemistry class.  You pull your cell phone out—an act that is against school rules—and start texting your girl- (or boy-) friend.  The teacher is cool; she rarely busts kids for having their cell phones out, as long as they are discreet about it. 

The teacher never said anything to you and later, the bell rings and you leave the chemistry lab.

Next day, you are called into the office, issued a referral, and suspended for one school day for using an electronic device in class—a rule in nearly every school district in just about every state in America.

Confused?  You should be.  If the teacher in the classroom isn’t enforcing the rule, why would someone in the front office be suspending you?

The same thing is happening in the NFL every Sunday.  Time and time again, NFL players are levied fines and suspensions for acts on the field that weren’t even penalized.

How is it possible that a violent, egregious hit worthy of a fine and/or suspension isn’t even worthy of a yellow flag?  It’s a disgusting circumstance, and it’s a reality in today’s NFL.

Officials need to go with their gut, and as Steve Young said on Monday Night Football, those plays that make your cringe deserve a flag and possibly an ejection.  We can’t expect players from age 8 to 38 to understand the importance of this issue if there isn’t an immediate consequence.  This is where the referees come in.

If a flag is thrown, yardage marked off and possibly an ejection enforced, the players, teams and viewers all feel the weight of the act and the consequences involved.

Read them again:

Any player, whether on offense or defense, who intentionally leads with or initiates contact with his helmet shall be penalized a 15-yard personal foul and may be ejected.

Any player, whether on offense or defense, who intentionally strikes another player in the neck or head shall be penalized a 15-yard personal foul and may be ejected.

If league commissioners introduce these rules, coaches teach them to their players, and players act upon them, 80% of the problem goes away.

The other 20% needs to be dealt with by the officials immediately when the infractions arise.

There are nay-sayers in forums, on blogs, and on TV already saying this “witch hunt” is misguided, and it’s going to cause more injuries: players are going to get hit in the knees more often, and broadcaster Tim Hasselback even commented that tacklers are more likely to duck their heads down, which can cause neck injuries.

But it’s my belief that if coaches are promoting proper tackling—using the arms and shoulders, aiming for the point of impact to be the torso, between the chest and belt, grabbing cloth, keeping your head up—that won’t happen.  And the only reason anyone tries to leg-tackle someone is on a last gasp attempt to catch a speedy runner from the side or behind.

Maybe part of the problem is that padding and equipment is so good these days that players don’t feel the pain of “laying a lick” on an opponent like they used to.  Look at Rugby: no padding.  They use proper tackling techniques because any other method just flat out hurts.

Our helmets are so scientifically advanced that defenders are more apt to use them as weapons. 

The number of serious injuries to the head is real, though.  And it’s something that requires an immediate reaction. 

Like millions of others, I love football’s violent nature.  It’s what makes it the most exciting sport in the world.  But the beauty of the game is that next week, those players get to suit up again.  When players are on the IR, retiring young, or are unable to recall their own name, things need to change.

And for all the naysayers: don’t get discouraged.  Some of the NFL’s recent rule changes to protect quarterbacks are powder-puff.  All of us can probably attest to that.  But protecting players’ heads is paramount.

A hard hit is a hard hit, and when someone gets jacked up within the rules, without a head injury, it’s much sweeter, and there’s no melancholy feeling that the player won’t get up off the ground, and the player won’t ever play again.

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