Monday, January 6, 2014

Ch, Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes: The NFL & Head Trauma

As published in The County Times ( in Nov 2010

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

There is little doubt that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was paying close attention as Major League Baseball’s star players and executives were paraded before Congress during the great performance enhancing drug detoxification.  The lesson for all other major sports was this: unless you want the U.S. Congress in your shorts and “assisting” in the cleansing process…and you most certainly do not…you better remain vigilant in policing your cul-de-sac in the sporting community, particularly those with significance beyond the professional ranks. 

And so, as head injuries have become the hot issue in the increasingly violent profession of pro football, the NFL has attempted to stay on the leading edge (at least in perception if not reality) in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions.  Concussed players are now immediately removed from games and a neurological testing protocol has been established to determine a player’s return to game action.  As far as equipment goes, flip on any NFL game and you’ll observe various generations of helmet technology, the newest of which have contours and vents that seem to have been modeled after exotic sports cars. 

The noteworthy evolution in the handling of concussions and of protective equipment has been broadly supported.  It seems no one – even the most blood thirsty fans and staunchest supports of “old school” football – is so detached from the reality and seriousness of concussions as to have issues with better treatment and improvements in protective gear for the Sunday gladiator.  However, addressing concussions at their source – violent hits – has been about as popular as (since it’s election week) Al Gore crashing a Big Oil rally or George W. Bush speaking at Cal Berkeley.  

The NFL has been flirting with controlling the big hits that cause concussions and head injuries for years.  There are existing rules that ban shots to the head of quarterbacks, laying out defenseless receivers and defenders launching themselves head first into opposing players.  The enforcement of the rules has been inconsistent and the penance for an offender has been no more than an in-game penalty and a token fine; nothing that would fundamentally change how the game is played.  And realistically, why would the NFL be proactive?  Like the long ball in baseball, big hits help sell the product.  Investigating why record amounts of homeruns were being hit or objectively researching the implications of head trauma from football isn’t good for business. 

After a particularly gory recent Sunday, one filled with an alarming amount of unconscious players, the NFL apparently either had had enough or it realized that the tolerance of such images by a certain elected body in Washington, DC might be waning.  Regardless, the NFL acted quickly, announcing that players guilty of a flagrant shot to an opposing player’s head would be subject to a suspension.  That may sound reasonable to the average fan, but many current and former players were appalled, arguing that you couldn’t suddenly ask players to change how they play and that removing the high and tight hit from a defenders arsenal would erode the game. 

With all due respect to this opinion, it is an emotional, testosterone-fueled overreaction.  If you’ve studied organizational change, or just lived through the inevitable surprises of life, you know that dealing with change is a process beginning generally with denial or an initial shock and eventually transitioning to acceptance (or at least tolerance).  The reality is the NFL has been legislating collisions and contact between players for years. Yet somehow the league has thrived despite outlawing clotheslines, head slaps, horse-collar tackles and hits to the legs of quarterbacks.  This list of misfit plays now has another entry: malicious, head hunting hits. 

The great American poet Bob Dylan once urged writers and critics, senators and congressmen, and mothers and fathers to be more aware of their surroundings and flexible in their ways because “times they are a changin’.”  Big hits will always be part of the game; they just now need to be delivered with a firm shoulder and below the neck.  If that hurts your feelings, get over it.  The game is moving on to what is hopefully a safer future and resistance to this change is futile.  

No comments:

Post a Comment