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College football season is finally here, with games getting underway on Friday, and the NFL season is right behind, with the defending super bowl champion New York Giants kicking off the season against the Dallas Cowboys a week from today. There’s no denying that this is the most anticipated time of year for many sports fans, but there’s also no denying that one of the biggest stories in the sport revolve around player safety, particularly in regard to head-related injuries.
In the last few years our outlook on head injuries as a society has taken a complete 180. Research has begun to show that concussions are much more common and have a greater impact on players than previously believed. Players no longer “shake it off” and head back in the game at the first opportunity. They have to be cleared by a doctor to return to action, and even then, more and more teams are showing caution whether the injured player is happy with the decision or not.
The prime example for this type of injury is actually not from the NFL, but from a sport that sees similar contact, with NHL star Sidney Crosby. Crosby took two hits to the head in a five-day span from Jan. 1 to Jan. 5, 2011, and didn’t see game action again until Nov. 21 of last year. After just eight games, Crosby took another big hit to the head, which sidelined him once again until March 15 of this year. Even after passing every test, Crosby elected to stay on the sidelines because he knew he didn’t feel right for quite some time. While Crosby’s case is certainly not the norm with head injures -- players are typically cleared to return to action within days -- it shows that they’re nothing to take lightly.
Other players are taking note as well. NFL offensive lineman Jacob Bell stepped away from football in the prime of his career prior to this season because of the seriousness of head injuries and his feelings that the NFL wasn’t doing enough to curb the problem. Crosby’s decision to sit out and Bell’s decision to hang it up aren’t common, but they’re a sign of a changing public opinion.
In recent months, many people in media have questioned the future of the NFL and football as a whole, and I admit, I was starting to worry about where the NFL would be in 10 or 15 years. Former players continue to file lawsuits against the league, spawning articles like the one plugged on the cover of ESPN the magazine’s latest issue, “Is football on the Edge of Extinction?”
It’s an honest question, and one that will only be answered with time, but with the gradual changes we’re beginning to see at all levels, I have to think the answer to ESPN’s question is probably not.
The NFL sets the example, and the younger leagues follow suit. That’s what had to happen, and that’s what has begun to happen. In fact, it begins with the youngest group, which is where one of the biggest changes happened this summer.
The local Blake Hoppes football league follows several guidelines regarding player safety by limiting teams to practicing two days per week and upgrading helmets every two years, but nationally-recognized Pop Warner football took safety a step further in June.
Officials recognized that the majority of contact occurs on the practice field, based on the sheer volume of plays teams run compared to gameday, and for that reason they instituted a rule that players be no further than three meters apart when executing tackling drills in practice.
Practice with no full-speed tackling? Absurd, right? Maybe. I’m not going to judge whether this new rule takes away from a defense’s ability to better itself in practice, because in reality, of course players are going to have sharper tackling skills if they work on tackling more, but it’s a matter of finding the right balance between player safety and ensuring football continues to be the most sport popular in the country.
This may not be a long-term solution, and it may just take one season for officials to decide that the idea just isn’t going to work, but it’s an effort to improve long-term player safety, which is a major step forward. Football has undergone an overhaul in its attitude toward head injuries in the last couple of years and this is just the most recent example of how measures are being taken for the betterment of the game.
A few months ago I was really questioning where football was headed as a sport. I watch religiously every week, but I also know that those lawsuits facing the NFL are no joke. But now I’m confident that there’s enough of an understanding of head injuries within the sport that rules may change and regulations may be tightened, but football will survive, and that will make for millions of happy fans.