Pity the folks running the NFL, Southeastern Conference and other lucrative football leagues. Their inconsistency in policing helmet-to-helmet hits like the one that has South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger suspended for Saturday’s SEC game against Missouri is part of a dangerous and dicey dilemma.
Arbitrarily enforce loosely interpreted rules to head off lawsuits that come with catastrophic head injuries?
Or, get serious about football safety and mess up the spectacularly violent game Americans love?
It is not a question of “if” anymore. Soon, an NFL or major college player will die on the field, or in the hospital early the next morning.
Sadly, we will say we saw it coming.
Then purchase snacks for the next big game.
League managers know all about fan and media hypocrisy, that health hazards as part of spontaneous entertainment make for a swell live show and better TV. That’s why we get strangely inconsistent rulings in the NFL and college football.
The New Orleans Saints “bounty” case obviously includes over-the-top penalties, but theoretically sends a message.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier “accepted” the Swearinger ban Monday, acknowledging that UAB receiver Patrick Hearn was “defenseless” when Swearinger arrived. But the Head Ball Coach had a message of his own.
“(SEC commissioner Mike Slive) ruled that his helmet-to-helmet hit above the shoulders was against the rules now and it was certainly worthy of a penalty,” Spurrier said. “I thought it was very similar to the hit the Vanderbilt player had on (Gamecocks tight end) Justice Cunningham (Aug. 30), but the commissioner saw it a different way.”
The SEC is not alone. Other college conferences and the NFL have a habit of isolating their displays of concern to the open-field play.
But it isn’t just receivers and quarterbacks listed among ex-players suffering from a career full of slams to the head. The May issue of Neurology says a player could sustain 8,000 hits over eight years of high school and college football combined.
So, yeah, try pounding your brain into the nearest wall. Chart the pounding over the next eight years.
The Neurology study conclusion: Repetitive head impacts over the course of a single season may negatively impact learning in some collegiate athletes. While stating that “further work is needed to assess whether such effects are short term or persistent,” that’s enough work to cause alarm.
They didn’t single out receivers and quarterbacks.
If the NFL and college leagues are serious about safety, they will crack down on brutal contact among linemen in the trenches and running backs who lower their heads for extra yards.
A defensive back is suspended for failing to make a split-second body adjustment at full speed.
A tailback executing his coach’s wish to “get low” is lauded.
Swearinger is suspended.
Florida running back Mike Gillislee was praised for sticking the crown of his helmet into a would-be Texas A&M tackler on the way to a touchdown, a typical play risking major neck trauma.
Arm tackling only is the safest answer but won’t happen, partly because leagues can hide behind insufficient or contrasting data.
Even if football numbers at younger ages are down, who knows why? The wide choice of newer sports — lacrosse, rugby, extreme sports and more — is a factor that doesn’t necessarily have a thing to do with parental fear of football injuries.
But no doubt high school football is getting more serious, with more offseason weightlifting, speed work and passing leagues.
A recent study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina showed high school and youth football players suffered 14 brain injuries with long-lasting damage in 2011, the most in more than 25 years. But the same study showed deaths from head injuries among high school football players have decreased in every decade since the 1960s.
“I think that’s related to kids getting better medical care on the field. They’re not dying, but they’re having permanent brain damage,” UNC’s Dr. Frederick Mueller told U.S. News and World Report.
On the field or later, brain damage can kill people.
Occasional suspensions are a way football leagues show the public they almost care.
Spurrier on Monday was asked if he thought foes would deliberately aim for quarterback Connor Shaw’s sore shoulder. No, he said.
“Almost every team has a team chaplain and our prayer before the game is ‘No injuries to either team,’ ” Spurrier added. “I would imagine the other schools pray the same thing. We all should be praying that if we don’t.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff