by Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
Forbes.com | March 21, 2013
Look at what happened yesterday when the NFL owners came together to discuss head injuries during their annual meeting. Led by the league’s Competition Committee, which deals with the rule book, owners approved a new rule that will prohibit ball carriers from using the crown of their helmets outside the tackle box. That means the kind of lead-with-your-helmeted-head style that defined players like Larry Csonka of the Miami Dolphins, Mike Alstott of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants, and Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers is now banned. No more feared fullbacks coming right through the middle of the line, clearing away defenders with their helmets.
With all but one franchise owner backing the “crown rule,” John Mara of the New York Giants was quoted as saying that he thinks the league can maintain the “very physical, violent” nature of the game, but remove some “unnecessary” hits from the field of play. That kind of thinking already has plenty of sportswriters, players, and fans moaning and groaning. They see the rule change as part of a growing trend to take the core violence out of football by reducing violent contact. Or, put another way, they are bristling at the prospect of “sissifying” a sport in which the players give up their bodies, health, and well being, and coaches can often act like battlefield generals calling for the next man up when someone goes down.
Let’s face it: contact sports like football and ice hockey are violent. They have become so increasingly violent, in fact, that many parents hesitate to let their children participate in them. Those ranks are certain to grow as more and more light is shed on the cost that participation could have on players’ brains. When that happens, the fan base will almost assuredly follow suit.
What’s worse is that if these sports don’t get the head and brain out of the game, they will eventually join boxing as a sport played only by the poor. That will probably lead to a much smaller fan base because the middle and upper classes will have a tough time trying to morally justify watching impoverished people smash their brains to bits for purposes of entertainment.
It’s tough to believe that the NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell aren’t trying to get the right things done when it comes to reducing head injuries. The growing attention to the issue has come on rapidly in a brief span of time. Making snap decisions to manage it could lead to dangerous outcomes and unintended consequences. Will that come back to bite the league in the end? Maybe so, though the reality of it won’t be clear for another decade or two from now.
Meanwhile, a rule change like the one the NFL owners approved is well-intended, but not enough. At the same time, the negative reaction to it in some quarters is whistling in the dark. How long will it be before a head trauma-related death occurs during a game or a parade of brain-injured current players spells the effective end of a sport?
What leagues like the NFL and NHL need to do is take the lead in shaping the rules for their sports. How to do it includes instituting rules that penalize hits to the head whenever possible. That means rules which make it clear that no player is to use the head to in any way spear, block, hit, tackle, and so on. It also means finding the fortitude to do the right thing, which requires overcoming the kind of challenge that is seen all too often in today’s economic and social policies: temporizing small fixes rather than making major repairs.
Going forward, popular contact sports like football and ice hockey will not have a meaningful future unless they get on top of the concussion epidemic that is plaguing their games. These sports, from the professional level down through the amateur ranks, are applying band-aids to a gushing wound that will eventually kill them. If the people involved in these sports want there to be a long-term future, they will have to get the heads of their players in the right place—off limits and out of bounds.