Sapakoff: Brain safety and concussion concern still lacking in football
Alabama survived Johnny Football, Manning men met at the Meadowlands and Friday night temperatures finally got a bit cooler, all within a few days of football entertainment last week.
But the same weekend was typically violent. Brandon Meriweather of the Washington Redskins gave Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy a concussion with a helmet-to-helmet hit, then gave himself a lingering headache after leading with his head to stop James Starks near the sideline.
There were high-profile college football ejections — some overturned — leading Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Texas head coach Mack Brown to question new “targeting” rules.
Damon Janes, a 16-year-old running back, died in a Buffalo, N.Y., hospital after a helmet-to-helmet hit in a high school game. His parents issued a statement, expressing “gratitude to those who have supported and prayed for Damon and his family.”
Solutions are simple.
NFL: Take away playing time, not just salary.
College: Err on the side of lifetime health, not sympathy for penalized players.
High school: Adopt national brain protection standards while fundamentally changing teaching techniques.
Resistance at all levels, either active or passive, shows why more deaths — college deaths, NFL deaths — are on the way.
Clowney and Saban
Bad intent? Perhaps not in the Meriweather case(s).
NFL negligence? For sure.
Meriweather wasn’t even penalized for the hit on Lacy — after apparently launching the crown of his helmet into Lacy’s earhole — or for the hit on Starks. Instead and incredibly, Meriweather, a player with a history of late hits against defenseless receivers, got away with a $42,000 fine.
NFL owners, by fining, prefer to put the financial burden on players instead of taking talent off the field, which might cost owners turnstile and TV money.
That way they can say, “See? We stand for safety — and you fans get to keep seeing fun collisions!”
College football management is trying. The new “targeting” rule calls for the ejection of players who go after defenseless players with above-the-shoulder hits. Replay officials can change calls and overturn ejections.
This subjective subject caused controversy before the season started. Jadeveon Clowney clearly wasn’t targeting last New Year’s Day at the Outback Bowl when Michigan running back Vincent Smith’s helmet went flying. But ACC head of officials Doug Rhoads and TV officiating expert Mike Pereira in July said the South Carolina defensive end probably should have been penalized.
There were seven targeting ejections in the first week of the 2013 college football season, three of them overturned by video replay.
Last week, the most high-profile ejection came when Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was kicked out of the Tide’s thrilling game at Texas A&M, and allowed back after review. Saban didn’t like that the 15-yard penalty still applied.
“Personally, on the rule itself, if you can review a play to say a guy should be ejected or not be ejected, to me, you should be able to review if it was a penalty or not a penalty,” Saban said.
Brown agrees, partly because Texas safety Adrian Phillips also had an ejection overturned.
“... If we’re going to take our time to delay the game and go up and make sure it’s not targeting,” Brown said, “why in the world can’t you say, in fact, he hit him with his shoulder and it’s (not) even a penalty? I think that’s where it needs to change.”
Change, or wither
Saban and Brown don’t object to the basic rule. They didn’t come out against the study of tissue within the brains of football players who die too soon.
But the culture of football is too often all about hit hard now, win games and worry later.
For all the focus on tacklers, there’s not enough emphasis on ballcarriers that launch into danger at almost every full-pads practice in American football.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, after a routine August workout, talked about the Tigers’ Paw Drill, which is similar to the traditional Oklahoma Drill pitting a running back and three blockers against three defenders in a small area.
“The Paw Drill is a great drill,” Swinney said, talking generally about practice that day. “It’s a toughness drill. It is great for both sides and great for the backs because they have to run through the smoke. There’s nowhere to go. They have to put their head down and hit it, so it’s a very good drill.”
Heads smashing into heads is a big part of football, now and way back when. Swinney isn’t against targeting legislation, either.
But a few changes can save lives if football people are willing to pay for safety.
It’s a lot about money.
NFL owners should suspend more players.
The NCAA should get serious about player safety with more effort and transparency on health issues.
High school football must invest in change, or continue to leak players (the National Federation of State High School Associations says there were more than 25,000 fewer high school football players in 2012 than in 2008 with concussion concerns a major reason for the slide).
A national high school brain protection standard is overdue, with monitoring by trainers and doctors.
And here’s a great job description for every prep team in America: Tackle technique coordinator, with training and national certification required.
It’s going to be expensive, but isn’t this a sport worth trying to save?
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.