Taking Headshots Head On

21 10 2010

So Steelers linebacker James Harrison is contemplating retirement. Good for him, maybe this means he is finally seeing just how dangerous the big hits he and his colleagues dish out on a weekly basis truly are.

Yeah I didn’t think so either, turns out Harrison just doesn’t like getting in trouble.

So as he and fellow players Brandon Meriweather, and Dunta Robinson pay their fines and return to the field Sunday the NFL will be watching with the eyes of a hawk for dangerous tackles in order to possibly start handing down suspensions.

Again, good for them but it can’t help but feel like the damage has already been done a long time ago. It is damage that can’t just be measured in the number of players left injured by headshots or the grand total of fines paid.

No, the damage is in the culture and the idea that hits like head shots are just a part of the game, a byproduct of trying to make the big play. And unfortunately for the NFL it’s going to take a lot more than fines and threats of suspension to change that.

“There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured,” Harrison told the Associated Press. “You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people.”

And hurt people he did as he left the Cleveland Browns without wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs due to concussions. Ironically enough Harrison did not even draw a penalty on his hit for Cribbs because, running out of a wildcat formation, he was a runner in possession of the ball and thus a legal target leading one to believe the NFL has a hard time protecting anybody.

Even more alarming is that Harrison is nowhere near alone on his opinion on rough hits.

Chicago corner Charles Tillman thinks the NFL is ruining the integrity of the sport. To him it’s “not even football anymore.”

Miami linebacker Channing Crowder is unrepentant and insists that if you want to stop helmet-to-helmet hits you’re going to have to pry his from his cold dead fingers.

“If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I’m going to knock them out and take what they give me,” he told ESPN. “They give me a helmet, I’m going to use it.”

Even Ray Lewis, arguably one of the best linebackers of his era, is dismissive.

“My opinion is play the game like that game is supposed to be played,” he told ESPN. “and whatever happens happens.”

It’s the kind of ignorance toward others safety that makes you wonder whether they have all been hit in the head one too many times.

And maybe they have, considering how hard it is for them to let go of their dangerous practices must speak to a long history of improper coaching or multiple head injuries.

There is no denying that football is a dangerous and violent sport, but the unnecessary force used by many can be akin to opening a can of soup with a 12-gauge shotgun. There is just a better way.

It will have to start with coaching at all levels, teaching players proper technique and punishing reckless plays early would pay long dividends.

Though that may be a lot to ask for in the NFL.

Quick question: do you think Bill Belichick pulled Meriweather off for his dirty hit or for costing the Patriots 15 yards in a tight game?

Yeah, I thought so.

It is a deep seeded problem in the culture and the NFL must not be afraid to come down harder on for their own sake. To not do so would be nothing short of a travesty and a spit in the face to retired players that now deal with post-concussion symptoms that plague them even after they leave the game and a mockery of the investments the league has made in concussion research.

There is a reason football has evolved past the era of leather caps as protection and unless things change it will be a matter of if rather than when someone doesn’t get up after a hit.

And it’s on that day that these modern day gladiators will have to deal with the consequences of life and death in the arena.

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