NFL Must Police Helmet-to-Helmet Hits Before It's Too Late
Time was when somebody did get killed playing football, and at a rate that made it seem almost routine.
It was just over a century ago, 1909, and college football, which then was the highest level of the game and commonly paid non-students to play, counted 11 deaths in its ranks that season. That was basically one per week. Maybe the most infamous was of an Army tackle named Eugene Byrne -- according to John Sayle Watterson's College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy -- who was trampled against Harvard and died the next day from a dislocated vertebrae that severed nerves that helped him breathe.
In wake of the carnage and growing public outcry, several colleges shelved their football teams. Others coalesced to create new rules to make their game safer.
There would be more deaths and catastrophic injuries in subsequent years, but eventually college football got a handle on its violence.
It has been time for a few years for what is now our highest level of football, the NFL, to react to its heightening level of violence as rashly as colleges did a century ago – or somebody is going to get killed, again.
We saw it last year with the Steelers' Ryan Clark's hit on Willis McGahee of the Ravens. We saw it on Sunday with, oh, take your pick: New England's Brandon Meriweather on Baltimore's Todd Heap, Atlanta's Dunta Robinson on Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson or Pittsburgh's James Harrison on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi.
I'll take Harrison's, if only because of his demonstration afterward of his respect for his sport and fellow player, albeit an opponent, that he relayed to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"I don't want to see anyone injured," Harrison said, "but I'm not opposed to hurting anyone."
Who knows how many players there are like Harrison who can't control their sadistic urges. But given that he is evidence that they exist, the league was right to announce on Monday that it would start reigning the Harrisons in, lest they spoil the game for viewers, all the ancillary people who make a livelihood around the game and, in the end, themselves.
"We can't and won't tolerate what we saw Sunday," NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told ESPN Monday evening. "We've got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots."
In other words, fines for helmet-to-helmet or body-to-head shots are about to get upgraded to suspensions as early as next Sunday's slate of games. There won't be any more Rodney Harrisons allowed. Harrison, now in the NBC Sunday Night football studio as an analyst, paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines for attempting to decapitate opponents before he was ordered to sit for a game and, he said, learned his lesson.
Fines absolutely are no longer enough of a punishment and certainly aren't what the game really needs, which is a deterrent. Sunday warned that it is past time for the NFL to change the mindset of those who play the game now and will play it in the future.
The league's owners and the players' union may not agree on how to divvy up all the loot they pull in right now, but they should be able to find common ground on saving themselves from becoming snuff television. The union should sign on to the league's reaction on this matter when commissioner Roger Goodell contacts it about the change, as he should. He needs to let the players know this is about their safety and the image of the league, not about control. The league and the players need to quickly agree to what will be tolerated and what won't.
But if the union balks, Goodell should act like his basketball peer, David Stern, and unilaterally impose the new rule. We're talking life and, maybe, death here.
This isn't about putting skirts on quarterbacks and taking the toughness out of football. This isn't about having people who haven't played the game at its highest level, if at all, dictating to the game how it should be played. This is about keeping the game exciting without it having to teeter at the precipice of tragedy. It may not be able to avoid what happened to former Bills' player Kevin Everett, who was fortunate to escape paralysis after suffering a life-threatening spinal-cord injury while trying to make a tackle three years ago on special teams. But it should be able to guard against what happened to the late Darryl Stingley, who was paralyzed for the rest of his life after a shot from Jack Tatum, who died earlier this year.
The good news about football, as college football 100 years ago and the NFL just this season have shown, is that it has been reactive, if not proactive, to things such as helmet-to-helmet hits that threatened to turn future fans and players off from the game. This season the NFL implemented guidelines governing when a player who suffered a concussion can return to play. It is also doing a better job in-game of identifying those players. (Although last weekend, Washington's Chris Cooley returned to play after having suffered a concussion that, I hope, just went undiagnosed at that moment.)
It may sound counter-intuitive to plead for the NFL to reel itself in when we've been led to believe that the fastest growing sport is the rubbernecking licensed brawling called mixed martial arts and the movie box office winner last weekend was the masochistic "Jackass 3D" that soaked up $50 million.
But the NFL is America's pastime that in recent years has had to come to grips with the battered state in which it's left scores of it former stars. It also has to understand that current players are not necessarily less threatened with long-term health problems.
The league was smart to suggest it won't wait until another player is left quivering flat on the ground as Jackson was Sunday before it starts benching reckless tacklers. Want to hunt a trophy in the league? Make it the Lombardi, not an opponent's head.