Safe football demands changes in attitude, technique, gear

January 31, 2013 

When the topic of player safety in the game of football reaches the White House, it is timely to look back and ask ourselves: What would Teddy Roosevelt do?

When President Obama was quoted by New Republic magazine that he’d have to seriously consider whether he would allow a hypothetical son to play football because of the chance of injury, the comment renewed the relevance of Roosevelt’s actions more than a century ago.

Roosevelt did have a son, Teddy Jr., playing at Harvard. It was at a time when the Chicago Tribune called the 1905 football season a “death harvest” that saw 19 player fatalities.

Harvard was considering joining the move to ban the game. Roosevelt wrote to a friend that he hoped to find ways to “minimize the danger” without causing the game to be played “on too ladylike a basis.”

He invited school leaders to the White House, and urged them to arrive at rules changes that would spare the game while curbing the lethal violence.

Here’s what they came up with: The forward pass, which opened up the game and allowed it to evolve away from the bludgeoning rushing attack.

Also, they added penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, and banned certain blocking formations.

A quote from the old Rough Rider at the time: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal, so

long as it’s not fatal.”

That’s probably how the contemporary fan feels, Obama included. While the quote about his “son” gained attention, the rest of it provided context, because he went on to say that even those who love the game will admit it has to change to reduce some of the violence.

Mr. President, I’d amend that to say it needs to change to reduce the injuries, which are the problem rather than the violence itself. And that’s why I’d argue against those who contend the game is doomed.

The violence doesn’t threaten the game nearly as much as the lawsuits over liability. Certainly there’s some altruism in the NFL’s push for player safety, but it’s also about the 3,000 suits against the league by former players, including 2,000 in a class action regarding brain damage.

Regardless, the commitment to make the game safer has reached critical mass.

The NFL Players Association just dedicated $100 million to fund a 10-year Harvard Medical School study on player injuries and illnesses.

The NCAA this week committed to the establishment of a national sports science institute aimed at enhancing athletes’ safety in all sports, including a national task force to study ways to make football safer.

To help spread the information to lower levels, USA Football provides an educational program to teach techniques designed to make players less vulnerable to injury.

It’s not just a matter of funding studies. Changes must be made.

First, the game must evolve. The move to reduce/eliminate head-first hits is, uh, a no-brainer. It’s fair to think that the penalties that fans and players now deride as emasculating the game, are actually reducing long-term brain damage.

Revised tackling techniques emphasizing new target points are already being stressed at all levels.

Second, technology must change. I hope helmet companies are spending as much time on safety improvements as they are figuring ways to make Oregon’s helmets shiny. Perhaps co-opting some of the helmet technology designed for car racers is a start.

Improved light-weight padding that moves with the players might cause them to wear more protection on knees, thighs and hips. The NFL regulates the way every player’s uniform looks, but not that they even wear pads on their legs.

Most important, attitudes must change – top to bottom.

A number of players and former players are still in the fog of competition, and perpetuate the tough-guy culture that demands they rail against the sissification of the game.

The you-gotta-play-hurt mentality has to be minimized as much as possible. Maybe it will come with increased awareness. A player’s dedication to the team and its collective good is so admirable but at the same time so dangerously short-sighted.

Games are over in an afternoon; serious physical damage can last a lifetime.

I’ve seen this from all angles. My father played. I played. My son played. And I hope someday to see a grandson play.

I just want him to be safe in the process.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ @DaveBoling

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