How do we make sense of, and manage, football’s violence?

Head-first tackles, helmet swinging and devastating hip injuries all add to a game’s growing reputation for chaos

Ken ReedA couple incidents from last week’s football action have garnered a lot of media and fan attention: Myles Garrett’s bonehead use of Mason Rudolph’s helmet as a weapon and the terrible hip injury to Alabama’s star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

First, the Garrett situation. Twitter-verse is afire with emotional chatter about banning Garrett from the National Football League for life. Others say he should’ve been arrested for assault and thrown in jail as soon as he walked off the field.

These are overreactions to a moment of madness in a very emotional and physical game. Yes, Garrett’s behaviour was abhorrent. And yes, he deserves a major suspension. The rest of the season and any possible playoff games seems reasonable. That would significantly hamper his team’s chances in coming weeks and will result in a big loss of salary for Garrett.

But football has a much bigger problem than players like Garrett occasionally stepping over the edge. The game is in the midst of a brain injury crisis. The problem isn’t just the much-talked-about concussions but the repetitive sub-concussive brain impact that occurs constantly during games.

Defensive players continue to tackle by leading with the crown of the helmet, in effect becoming human spears in an effort to get offensive players to the ground. Traditional – and safer – tackling techniques (head up and to the side of the ball carrier, drive with the shoulders, wrap up with the arms, etc.) are seldom used today. This is the reality despite propaganda from football leaders at all levels of the game emphasizing heads-up tackling techniques.

In the same Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game in which Garrett went crazy, the Browns’ Damarious Randall was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet hit that made the Steelers’ Dionate Johnson bleed from the ear.

The ejection of Randall was certainly warranted. However, it’s a call that should be made a lot more often, not only in NFL games but National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), high school and youth games as well.

Offensive players should also be penalized for leading with the head. The head shouldn’t be used as a weapon on either side of the ball.

Research clearly shows that repetitive sub-concussive head trauma can lead to a variety of short-term and long-term brain injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Brain trauma will never be removed from football unless we move to flag-only football. Don’t hold your breath. So to reduce brain trauma as much as possible, head contact must be significantly reduced. That means a couple things:

  • No full contact practices once the season starts (the Ivy League has already adopted this rule);
  • immediate ejection any time a player leads with his head. For multiple offenders, a game suspension should be tacked on to the ejection.

Undoubtedly, this will result in numerous player ejections until players adapt to the new rule. It will be frustrating for a while but if the NFL and other football organizations are serious about reducing brain injuries, it needs to happen immediately.

Regarding Tagovailoa’s terrible injury, the focus in the media and on Twitter has been on how the injury negatively impacts Alabama’s chances to make the College Football Playoff, and how it might impact Tagovailoa’s NFL draft prospects.

After hoping for the best for Tagovailoa, my thoughts turned to the sad situation college football players find themselves in versus pro players.

College players are considered students participating in an extracurricular activity,and thus, aren’t eligible to receive workers’ compensation for injuries sustained while playing football.

NCAA Division I football is a big-time, highly profitable venture that’s professional in every sense of the word except in terms of athlete compensation. Millions are generated for coaches, athletic directors, universities, television networks, broadcasters, sponsors, etc. But the players who create the product can’t earn anything beyond a bed, meals and a seat in a classroom.

College players, like Tagovailoa, can’t even receive long-term health care from their universities, or the NCAA – even for injuries that can be life-altering like Tagovailoa’s hip injury has the potential to be. Remember, Bo Jackson was never the same after a similar hip injury.

Luckily, top draft prospects, like Tagovailoa, usually have access to disability insurance to protect them against loss of earnings (at least to some degree) due to a serious injury suffered in college. However, the vast majority of college players with the potential to play in the NFL or Canadian Football League (CFL) don’t.

The key point here is that Tagovailoa should’ve been reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars playing for Alabama, one of the most high profile and profitable college programs in the U.S. Even if he wasn’t on Alabama’s payroll as an employee, as a star QB, Tagovailoa could’ve earned thousands, maybe millions, from his name, image and likeness if the NCAA allowed it. His coach, Nick Saban, earns $8.85 million a year while standing safely on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, football players have no real alternative to college football if their end goal is the NFL. There’s no minor league developmental system for them. The NCAA provides the wealthy NFL owners with a free minor league system. Young football players are stuck risking injuries in college that could significantly affect their future earnings.

We need to finally accept the fact that U.S. college sports, at the highest level, are a huge entertainment industry.

The hypocrisy in college athletics is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes who fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on U.S. college campuses have significant market value.

It’s a modern civil rights issue that demands the U.S. public start lobbying for economic justice for college athletes.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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