History Lesson – Safety, a Serious Issue We’ve Tackled Before

The professor is back. Your insomnia is cured.

Last week we talked about how college football may be outgrowing its demand. Larger stadiums, more bowls, more teams and more and more games on TV are all adding up to lower ratings and less attendance. We were framing this expansion as a kind of bubble that could pose a threat to the game we love and while we argued over whether there was really anything to worry about commenter Robert K. chimed in with something else we should be concerned about. Robert noted “The effect of concussions and severe injuries.”

Certainly one of the most notable differences in the game recently has been the emphasis on preventing injuries, particularly brain injuries. All of us have found ourselves at some point cursing the refs for flagging a hit we feel was legal, by the rule book, and proven to be on super slow-mo replay. Just a few weeks ago the Seahawks Kam Chancellor delivered just such a hit to the 49ers Vernon Davis.

He was flagged immediately, but as Chris Collinsworth noted after watching the replay, “If that's not legal I don't know what is. I think that is outstanding defensive football.” As Collinsworth and others dissected every minutiae of the play on super slow mo showing how Chancellor led with his shoulder and struck Davis in the chest, everyone concluded it was an allowable hit under the rules, but something important went unmentioned. Vernon Davis suffered a concussion on the play, the very injury the rule the refs were enforcing was meant to prevent. The reason this play caused the injury to Davis despite no helmet to helmet contact is simply because big hits cause concussions, not just hits to the head. As this New York Times article explains:

“Contrary to popular belief, a concussion is not a bruise to the brain caused by hitting a hard surface. Indeed, no physical swelling or bleeding is usually seen on radiological scans. The injury generally occurs when the head either accelerates rapidly and then is stopped, or is spun rapidly.”

The bottom line here is that despite the rule changes that have fans, players, coaches and commenters up in arms, the current rules probably don’t protect players enough. Whether we want to hear it, or not, the danger to players is very real. The costs the sport is facing due to these injuries are very real. Basically, this is a serious problem and we need to do something about it to protect the players and the game that we love.

Unfortunately, football being the macho enterprise that it is, these kinds of rational concerns are usually met with a chorus of enlightening retorts such as, “This a MAN’s sport you wuss!”, “If you can’t handle it go watch figure skating!” and other witty comments about “big boy pants” and “orange slices at halftime” and so on. If history has taught us one thing, its that sometimes the sissy-pants among us have to rise up and take a principled stand to keep us from destroying the things we love with our own stubbornness. In fact, the game of football has been threatened before due to safety concerns. Powerhouse teams across the land were on the verge of dropping the sport altogether, but thankfully a milquetoast wuss took charge of the situation and changed the rules to save the game. Lets meet this namby pamby tinkerbell after the jump…

Oh, Im sorry, did I say the game was saved by a sissy? Actually it was Teddy Roosevelt, American Badass extraordinaire. This guy:

Teddy on his favorite mount, Pickles.

Teddy taking a breather with his trusty rhino "Rowdy" that he rode while hunting in Africa.

Teddy displaying the bait he used while fishing for great white sharks.

Teddy wearing an outfit made from the skin of the last man to call him "Theodore".

A triumphant Teddy after he disarmed this elephant of its shotgun then killed it with his bare hands.

Teddy's "man cave" where he liked to hang out with pals Geronimo, Ghengis Kahn and Chuck Norris.

In 1905 the game of football had become too rough for… Teddy freakin Roosevelt. This is a man who despite having asthma in an age without inhalers was a boxer, a cop, a soldier, a rancher, an explorer, and, of course, president. There are many anecdotes of badassery about Teddy Roosevelt, but I think two sum him up best. First one is that while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy he was briefly the Acting Secretary of the Navy while the real Secretary of the Navy was indisposed for a few hours getting a massage. Never being one to hesitate when handed an opportunity, Teddy used those few hours in charge to start the Spanish American War. Once he got his war started, he quit his job with the Navy, raised his own volunteer cavalry unit and went down to Cuba to whip the Spaniards himself. How did he top that you may ask? How about the time he was shot by a would-be assassin before he was due to deliver a speech and he just went right ahead and gave the speech anyway. As he told the assembled crowd that day, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Carry on, Teddy, Carry on.

But even Teddy badass had seen enough after a year which saw 18 on-field deaths in high school and college football. Many colleges, including powerhouse programs like Harvard, were considering dropping the sport altogether. Then president Teddy Roosevelt personally intervened, assembling the sport’s first governing body (a committee that would evolve into the NCAA) and implementing a radical rule change that had the old guard of hardnose football traditionalists crying in their sarsaparilla. Since players were dying in what amounted to a scrum at the line of scrimmage, they wanted to spread the game out to keep smaller players away from the larger heavier players who were crushing them to death. To do this, they sanctioned the forward pass ( a silly, sissified gimmick if you asked most “real men” of the time) and football would never be the same again.

A lot of other rules were implemented around this time and along with some innovative coaches who started tinkering with the new formations, you basically have the creation of the game we all love today.

Basically, if Teddy Roosevelt felt the game should be safer, I don’t think I will have to turn in my man-card (its a real thing, ladies) just for feeling the same way. There are lots of reasons to embrace changes to the rules of the game that have nothing to do with being a wuss. For one, its not just the highly paid pro’s or the D-1 college kids who play the sport. Lots of our kids play the sport too and they are suffering the same injuries. Besides rule changes, the entire sport needs to emphasize safer play, starting with Pop Warner, and all the way up to the guys those kids watch on TV. Football is a tough sport and we can never remove all the risks, nor should we, but we should be able to realize when the risks have become completely unreasonable for something that is, after all, just a game.

So while it may be true that referees are erring on the side of protecting vulnerable players, In my mind, that’s exactly what they should be doing. I will miss the explosive hits as much as the next guy, but I also miss things like tackling, a lost art in this day and age of players launching their bodies like airborne torpedoes. I also miss the players who aren’t with us any more due to injuries they suffered entertaining us.

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