Safety concerns eat at football from top to bottom
In an effort to reduce players’ risk of brain damage, the NFL is trying to “take the head out of the game.”
But who knew they were speaking figuratively, too?
The term became a mantra in 2012 when USA Football and its sugar daddy, the NFL, rolled out “Heads Up Football,” a program intended to make the sport safer for youth through new tackling techniques, improved coaching and better-fitting equipment. The effort netted commissioner Roger Goodell the Neurosurgical Society of America’s “Medal for Outstanding Service” in 2013.
“We want to take the head out of the game,” Goodell said at the time. “The helmet is for protection. It is not a weapon.”
And the brain is designed for thinking, not just filling space in a skull.
But the NFL has lost its mind this season in starkly shifting emphasis from protecting players’ heads to protecting the offense’s head. Roughing-the-passer penalties have more than doubled though three weeks compared to last season (34-16). The controversy is dominating discussions about the league in derogatory fashion.
Meanwhile, at the youth level, where there can’t be too much safety talk, participation continues its drop. According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of prep players has declined 6.6 percent in the past decade. Locally, at least six area high school teams cancelled their seasons this year due to low turnout.
Football easily remains the top participatory sport for high school boys, with the NFSHSA reporting there were 1,036,842 football players in 2017, compared to 600,097 track field participants and 551,373 basketball players. But there’s no denying the game is trending in the wrong direction.
Goodell Co. saw the problem developing and responded with Heads Up Football, mostly a joke. It was an unsuccessful attempt to combat the negative stories concussions, suicides and lawsuits that flooded the news cycle and frightened moms who otherwise might’ve let their sons play.
Now, football officials are faced with a dilemma. The overemphasis on roughing the passer has increased claims that the game is becoming too soft, while researchers argue that tackle football still isn’t soft enough for youth.
Safety concerns are eating football from top to bottom. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants to separate the men from the boys, but many moms will continue to steer their boys away based on what lies ahead.
“It’s real important that pro football distinguish itself as a very physical game relative to the game at college, relative to the game at high school and amateur,” Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 FM in Dallas. “That’s very important. Now, where to find that balance, that’s one thing.
“But when it comes to pro football, to use a boxing term, that’s when you put the 6-ounce gloves on. That’s when you don’t want to fight with those 10-ounce gloves or you don’t fight with those headgears. ... You’re paid a lot of money to go out and incur those type situations that have more risks in them.”
That includes a defensive back incurring 310-pound offensive linemen barrel-rolling into his leg and snapping his ankle, the perfectly legal play Sunday that sent New Orleans cornerback Patrick Robinson to injured reserve. Like Goodell said at his Super Bowl news conference in 2016, trying to tamp down concerns about a recent spate of young football players dying: “There’s risks in life; there’s risks in sitting on the couch.”
Uh, OK. But to stick with Jones’ boxing metaphor, the risk of being knocked out is much greater in the ring than on the couch.
There aren’t that many moms who want their kid to box, even with the headgear and big gloves. The prospect of him losing the extra protection if he turns professional provides less incentive. But the NFL wants to make the introduction to tackle football as nonthreatening as possible. Especially with growing calls to give kids flags and keep them out of pads until they’re teenagers.
Meanwhile, on Sundays, there are howls from fans, players, coaches and media, all of whom are shocked and dismayed at the penalty flags for basic hits. The game has devolved to the point that Miami Dolphins defensive end Williams Hayes suffered an ACL tear as he tried to avoid a roughing-the-passer penalty on a routine sack.
The NFL’s overcompensation on these plays doesn’t appeal to followers. And it doesn’t assuage fears for parents, either. That’s a tough position for a sport to be in. Looks like football is stuck between a pillow and a soft place.
Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.