There’s an old saying from analysts, scouts and front-office types who have been around any level of competitive football that goes something like “These guys are involved in the equivalent of a car crash on every play.”
At first blush, that can seem like extreme hyperbole. To some extent, it probably is. Exaggeration is part of what euphemisms are for.
On the other hand, you’ve got the line of scrimmage, where players somewhere in the vicinity of 300 pounds line up inches from each other then launch themselves into a scrum with all the velocity they can muster. You’ve got linebackers who not only keep getting bigger and stronger, but also faster, and defensive backs so athletic, that, once encased in helmet and pads, they are essentially ballistic weapons.
Football has always been a violent game. And it’s not like the guys who played it when a helmet was essentially a bucket, smoking on the sidelines wasn’t unusual and everyone was a lot slower escaped the sport without serious repercussions.
But players, medical staff and fans know a lot more about the toll the game takes now, thanks in no small part to the work of those like Dr. Bennet Omalu and WVU neurosurgery chairman Dr. Julian Bailes, who co-founded the Brain Injury Research Institute. Players can suffer debilitating head trauma that can manifest in disturbing ways later in life, causing anything from memory loss to reduced motor function to serious dementia, depression and suicide.
More and more, players are retiring early to escape long-term damage to body and mind. Fewer kids are playing, as their parents worry about their health. The NFL and NCAA continually take steps, whether it be through new equipment or more stringent rules about tackling, to not necessarily eliminate concussions (because no piece of equipment can do that) but at least prevent and limit them.
Still, football at the high collegiate and professional level is a meat grinder. The mantra of “next man up” has evolved more into a concept of running a triage unit on the sidelines. Teams are extremely lucky if they can get through a season with a quarterback who has remained upright and still knows his name.
It’s the country’s most popular sport. But can it continue like this? Is football too dangerous?
There’s an interesting study from Marshall University that has emerged suggesting that, if tackles involved the defensive player wrapping up the offensive player and taking them fully to the ground (as is done in rugby), it would naturally decelerate the fall and result in fewer injuries. That style of tackling also reduces the force of impact, according to the study.
Before immediately tossing out the idea or dismissing rugby as soft, keep in mind that it’s a sport with no stoppage in play except halftime, no pads are involved and some players wear tape around their ears so they don’t get ripped from their heads in a scrum.
Researchers for the study said rugby-style tackling is being taught in youth football programs now, according to an article from Herald-Dispatch reporter Bishop Nash.
But it will take rule changes and enforcement at higher levels — where athletes typically just launch themselves at opponents to knock them off their feet — to be successful.
It’s one study and, even if adopted, such rules might not stop all head injuries. But if it can significantly reduce head and other injuries from such brutal contact, it’s worth a try.