Only Three Ways to Stop Concussions in the NFL and College Football

Doug Pensinger

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell floated the idea of eliminating kickoffs, which leads to perhaps the most violent aspect of a football game with the kick return and coverage. While it's a novel idea, if he wants to really stop the epidemic of concussions in the NFL and college game, there's only three ways to do it, and he's not going to like- or do- any of them.

So this week NFL Commish Roger Goodell talked about eliminating kickoffs in football. In true Goodell fashion he didn't say it was going to happen or might happen, just that Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano had this idea about a way to make the game safer, and gee what a neat idea. He's leaving it to the rest of us to debate and wonder and decide if this is a good idea or not.

And Schiano's idea is this:

...after a touchdown or field goal, instead of kicking off, a team would get the ball on its own 30-yard line, where it's fourth-and-15. The options are either to go for it and try to retain possession, or punt. If you go for it and fall short, the opposing team would take over with good field position. In essence, punts would replace kickoffs, and punts are less susceptible to violent collisions than kickoffs.

It's...interesting? I guess? The kickoff will probably be eliminated at some point, as touching, let alone tackling, a QB has pretty much been elminated already (the over-protection of quarterbacks is much worse at the NFL level than college), as are hits to the head (because, you know, when a defender is going full speed to make a tackle and the player with the ball ducks, the tackler is supposed to be able to change direction mid-flight. Sure he is), and other various rule changes that are all simply window dressing. Football is a violent game played by gigantic, super-human and super-fast humans in body armor, who are colliding at top speed. As Joe Namath said in a recent interview (and he's certainly not the first or last to do so) the human body wasn't meant to play tackle football. It wasn't mean to collide with one another at full speed, no matter what the tackling form. But then again, the human body wasn't meant to do a lot of things we still do to it: throw a curveball, run marathons, smoke, drink, live with high stress. But we do it because we want to, and in the end, that's what it's going to come to for football (and also for my beloved game of hockey): those who play the games do so willingly, knowing the consequences and possible outcomes.

Because really there are only three ways to eliminate concussions in football, and the NFL, the NCAA, and high schools are not likely to do any of these:

1) Stop playing the game. This is the only one that guarantees no injuries or lawsuits (and let's face it, stopping the lawsuits is really what this is all about).

2) Stop tackling: Touch football wouldn't totally eliminate injuries (I'll never forget Patriots running back Robert Edwards injuring his knee and ending his career playing sand football at the Pro Bowl), but would all but eliminate the risk of concussions. Of course it would also all but eliminate fans watching- and paying for- the game.

3) Stop wearing pads: Way, way back in the days of leather helmets the padding was minimal and the players didn't wear facemasks. Players had to tackle properly (i.e, not leading with their head) because, well, you'd have to be crazy not to. With today's equipment elminating facemasks alone would cut down on the number of guys trying to lead with their faces, but if they're still wearing any kind of decent helmet and the mammoth plastic shoulder pads players currently wear, they're still going to launch themselves like missles at one another. To have them stop leading with their heads and launching at one another, elminating pads entirely is the only way to get them to tackle properly. There would be a lot more injuries to the body below the neck, as anyone who's played tackle football in the park with their buddies can attest to, but it should greatly cut down on the number of concussions. The sports of rugby and Aussie Rules football are played by giant and fast human beings who are also freaking crazy people, and there are plenty of violent collisions and contact, but you don't get anywhere near the number of concussions you do with the NFL. Why? As crazy as these people are (I respect the hell out of the guys- and gals- who play rugby) and as fast and as physical as they play, they tackle properly and wrap up because you HAVE to when you're not wearing pads.

I don't know about you, but I don't see the NFL or college football going for any of these ideas. The game is too important for the people running it (ie makes them too much money), aso they're going to continue to make these minor tweaks like eliminating kickoffs that essentially equates to putting a band aid on a broken leg. Anything to keep the people watching and the money rolling in. Where I think all of this goes, eventually, is that people who want to play football in an organized league, at any level, will just have to sign a form acknowledging the risk they're taking and waiving any right to sue. Just like you would before you go sky diving or bunjee-jumping or any other dangerous activity that you know isn't a good idea but you do it anyway.

Football has always been a dangerous sport with serious risk of injury and negative consequences on the long-term health of those playing it. It's been that way since the days of leather helmets, or when Joe Namath played, or today, or tomorrow. As fans we care about player safety, sure, but if we REALLY cared we'd stop watching altogether because not playing the game at all is the only sure-fire way to protect the players from serious injury. But we love football, loved playing it as kids, love watching it as adults (and for those of you still in good enough shape to play as adults, good for you), and we're going to keep watching it as long as they'll play. We understand the consequences just like the players do, and because of that, the game will go on. We need to ensure they're taking the necessary steps to protect the players from unnecessary risk, but at the end of the day, it's a violent sport played at high speed by super-human people doing things the human body was not meant to do. Elminating kickoffs is not going to change that.

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