Before going too far into the subject of NFL violence, let me say that I was a child of the early 1950s and my first exposure to football was looking at pictures of my father’s favorite players or watching his favorite teams play the game in leather helmets. Since my father was born in 1924, you’ll find that his favorite players are rarely mentioned when you see Top Ten lists offered on the NFL Network. I used to idolize players like Dick “Night Train” Lane — who loved to horse-collar WRs — or Deacon Jones — who perfected the head-slap — but then again, those were the days that included segregated bathroom so we obviously didn’t know right from wrong back then. Now, we’re (well, some of us) are all grow’d up and the days of picking ball carries up, and turning them upside down and ramming their head into the turf are over. At least from a rules standpoint.
If any of you saw the Monday Night Football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals you may have seen a game so physical that two players have received one-game bans and another player, Ryan Shazier, is still in the hospital from a seemingly innocuous hit he made on a Bengal’s wideout Josh Malone.
The issue fo violent hitting has been around decades before the fat lady sang her song at the end of Super Bowl one. So, why is it an ever growing problem in the NFL? The simple answer to a complex question is… because of helmets.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Players can’t play the game in 2017 without helmets” and perhaps you’re right. However, there are exceptions to the rule and we should at least give this possibility a look.
About a week ago I watched the end of an incredibly compelling Rugby game in which a team from Australia almost came back vs. a team from England. The thing that struck me more than anything else was… none of these players were wearing helmets.
American Football Line of Scrimmage vs A Rugby Scrum
Above is an American Football Line of Scrimmage. The players line up one to two yards away from each other and that distance creates the need for an initial blow, which is what requires most linemen to need a helmet.
Above is a Rugby Scrum just prior to the two teams grabbing each other and attempting to push each other backwards as the ball is pitched under the pile. Some players wear headgear but this is a sport that closely mimics the dynamics of American Football, with plenty of hitting, but no helmet required.
While watching this recent rugby game I was impressed with the make-up of the teams. Most players look like Mike Singletary, NaVorro Bowman, or Derrick Johnson. As the ball is passes laterally from one player to the other, they run the ball upright and into the players from the other teams not fearing that kind of contact but still, no helmets.
Football Action vs Rugby Action
In football, a typical play lasts until a ball carrier is tackled — which is usually 5 to 9 seconds — then the play is stopped even though the game clock keeps moving. In rugby, when a player is tackled, the play stops long enough for the player to get back up and the ball is lateraled to the next guy who then advances play. Consequently, action in a rugby game is more continuously animated and a never ending battle. Rugby only stops like football when a score is made. It’s called a “try” in Rugby (which is made by touching the ball firmly down in the goal area) but when this happens it takes some time like in football getting ready for a kick-off (in Rugby they have a “conversion” after a “try” like in football there’s a “point after” following a “TD”).
While some people may think of Rugby as: a sport that few follow or play, as more than nothing but a passing fancy. However, the 2015 Rugby World Cup drew more than 4 Billion viewers worldwide and was shown in 207 countries or territories. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the NFL is seeking a wider world audience, because sports like Rugby and soccer have already proven it can be done.
Contact: Football vs. Rugby
I noticed that rugby ball carriers try to run the opposition over or simply try to make a move to get around them. They don’t lower their heads to make contact. More importantly, football players go for the Ronnie Lott thump or jolt. I admit to once enjoying those hits as much as the next guy but, the time for that kind of hitting is over. The league is regulating those kinds of jolting hits out of the game and that’s not a bad idea at all.
Consider that the kinds of blows to the head that I’m referring to are caused by sports with too much “distance” between the head and the object the head strikes: this is from John Hopkins,
“Almost 50 percent of head injuries sustained in sports or recreational activities occur during bicycling, skateboarding, or skating incidents.”
Helmets Being Used as Weapons in Football
I’m merely suggesting that in Rugby, the players engage each other without giving a jolting blow after ramping up speed and targeting another players head with their own head… because in Rugby they have no helmet to use as a weapon. By removing the “weapon” the players would all have to revert to protecting themselves and their own heads to make a play. If coaches (and the league) really want their defensive players to “tackle correctly,” instead of holding weekend-long seminars teaching kids how to hit properly, just take away the players helmets and the problem will quickly disappear.
Sure, I’m aware that Rugby is still a very brutal, rough and tumble sport. Just take a look at the following video (btw, this is not for anyone who has a weak stomach).
I’m not saying that Rugby is injury free. Far from it and the video above would support this claim. Also, I know that half of all rugby injuries come when a player is being tackled. However, there are many more neck injuries than head injuries and that seems like a positive trade-off to me. I know, I know… the neck is a vulnerable spot on the body as well but, if you’ve read any of the reports on the long term effects of repeated blows to the head, including concussions, but not concussions exclusively, then perhaps you’ll understand my point of view that an injured neck is not as bad as an injured head.
I realize there is little possibility that the NFL is going to go back to the days of “No Helmets” but the issue deserves to continue to be addressed because something must be done. There are those who are making headway (no pun intended) into the making of safer helmets. Here’s one that costs $1,500 per helmet.
That kind of cost is prohibitive even at the NFL level and obviously won’t work for college and high school players. VICIS also admits that there is no helmet that will stop concussions completely. However, the NFL game of football is simply too violent and something must be done. There are too many other reasons — besides head injuries — why fans are leaving for other pursuits. So, the NFL either addresses this or continues to suffer more failings in attendance.
Now if you’re thinking that the game of Rugby is for not for everyone… take a peek at this picture of the women of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. Perhaps this could help to broaden the NFL’s appeal? I’m just sayin’.
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