JOHN CRISP: Football safety change begins at bottom
One thing I like about newspapers is that contrasts and connections among adjacent articles often seem more striking than they do on the Internet.
For example, the July 31 edition of USA Today carried three articles appropriate to late summer, when millions of men and boys don football pads and helmets and return to the playing fields.
The lead article on the sports page reports on efforts to make football safer. For instance, the Guardian Cap is a polyethylene, foam-padded shell, resembling a turtle’s carapace, that fits snugly over an ordinary football helmet. According to its founder, Lee Hanson, the device reduces head impacts in lab tests by up to 33 percent.
His firm has sold 8,000 Guardian Caps so far, to clients including the University of South Carolina, Clemson and Mississippi State.
Other safety innovations are more high-tech. Riddell, which supplies the NFL, is developing a helmet with built-in sensors that record impact levels and transmit data to hand-held receivers on the sidelines. Software creates a history of the frequency and intensity of impacts for each player.
Reebok has developed a system called CheckLight, which includes an impact sensor and an LED light that attaches to the helmet and flashes yellow and red to indicate the level of impact to coaches and trainers.
I’ll assume the good faith of these efforts to produce a safer game in response to the recent wave of reports on the long-term effects on football players of too many hits to the head. And certainly reducing the level and frequency of those hits is probably a good thing.
But we should be wary of technical solutions and rules changes that appear to make the game safer while only tinkering at the edges of a larger problem, one that probably can’t be resolved: Football by definition is a violent game whose popularity depends largely on the public’s appetite for brutal collisions.
Even the players often resist efforts to make the game safer.
An adjacent story in the same issue of USA Today reports on the new NFL rule that prohibits players from leading with the crowns of their helmets when making initial contact with an opponent.
The worthy goal is to reduce head and neck injuries.
But the ambivalence connected to the rule is interesting. One team, the Cincinnati Bengals, voted against the new rule, and, in any case, the rule applies only to plays that are outside the tackle box and more than three yards downfield.
Some players say that they will do their best to comply, but others object to turning our great American game into a mild match of touch football. We might as well play soccer!
In the face of the brutal fact that many people involved with modern football — players, coaches, fans — are determined to maintain the violent spirit of the game, modest efforts to make it safer are unlikely to have much effect, and they may have the unintended consequence of giving players and parents of young players a false sense of security in what is still a dangerous game.
Which brings us to the third USA Today story, on the page following the first two: Rutgers is retiring the jersey — No. 52 — of Eric LeGrand, a former player who was paralyzed from the neck down during an Oct. 16 game against Army.
Safer equipment or better rules would not have prevented LeGrand’s injury. Nor would they have helped De’Antre Turman, a 16-year-old cornerback who died of a broken neck last Friday in Georgia.
Death or paralysis could be called a tragedy, but according to the doctrines of American football, they’re merely collateral damage in a game that’s very hard on necks and knees and brains.
Likely the carnage will continue until real reform begins at the bottom, when parents begin to prevent their sons from starting down that dangerous path in the first place.