Suspend Players for Helmet-to-Helmet Contact

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The new NFL logo went into use at the 2008 draft.

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The National Football League is seriously considering suspending players who are guilty of helmet-t0-helmet contact. This is a good move that should get the players’ attention.

NFL players are bigger and faster than ever before. I can remember back in the 1970s when a lineman who weighed 270 was considered heavy; now weights are routinely in the 300+ range, and players are surprisingly fast for their weight. The forces generated due to tackles by players of that size accounts for the many injuries routinely seen in NFL (and college) football games. What is especially troubling is the increasing number of concussions, many due to helmet-to-helmet contact. The brain damage due to multiple concussions adds up over the years, with the risk of permanent memory, cognitive, and physical deficits.

I doubt that most players intentionally contact helmet-t0-helmet; after all, the person making the contact is likely to suffer a concussion, too. It is more of a matter of getting into bad habits in tackling (and I have been surprised at the poor quality of tackling in general in the NFL). Habits are learned by doing the same action over and over, and they can be unlearned in the same way. However, there must be incentive for them to learn. A player making ten million dollars a year will not worry about a fine. But a three-game suspension will get the player’s attention. Not only will he worry about his team, he may get peer pressure from his teammates not to repeat the offense. Fans may be upset that a star player will not be playing. Though they may initially blame the league, once the suspension penalty becomes well-established, they may begin to see that players have a responsibility to avoid illegal hits. Fans are sometimes true fanatics and do not care if a player from their favorite team hurts a player from another team, but this is a morally bad attitude to have. Fans worthy of the name will demand clean play. Hopefully the league will actually begin suspending players guilty of helmet-to-helmet contact, and hopefully this will change the tackling habits of defensive players for the better. In that way, players’ careers and good health can be better preserved.

Tennessee, LSU, and the Agony of Defeat

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Tennessee Football

Image by tabounds via Flickr

I love American football. I am not a fan of “that European game,” soccer, most likely to the chagrin of rabid soccer moms who naturally foam at the mouth in reaction to any attack on their religion–but I digress. I grew up in Tennessee and grew up, like my Dad, as a Tennessee Vols fan. Even though I received my Ph.D. from Georgia, and believe it to be a very good university, I still am torn when UGA and Tennessee play, and my loyalty to my home state usually wins out. It was back in 1971 when I watched my first Tennessee game on television, when Tennessee defeated Penn State 31-11 (I think that was the score, but I’m willing to be corrected). In all these years I have never seen an ending like the one at the game today between Tennessee and LSU.

This series has a long history, and Tennessee has been known to be a team that has brought heartbreak to LSU. It did not happen this year. LSU had poor time management at the very end of the game, and the snap was fumbled. It seemed that Tennessee had pulled out a 14-10 victory. But a few minutes later, the referee penalized Tennessee for having 12 men on the field (actually Tennessee did one better–it had 13 men on the field). Why the assistant coach in charge of substitutions would make so many when LSU was obviously in distress is beyond me–but in time pressure, it is easy for things to go wrong–and both teams were out of time outs. The heartbreak of the Vols players must be beyond belief, especially given the excellent game they played. The press can point out that Tennessee should have stopped LSU on a 4th and 14–and they should have. But that will not ease the pain of this loss. It is a test of their ability to recover from an event like this that will bring out the character of the Vols players.

Football is a mirror image of life. Coaches make elaborate plans, study film for hours–the intellectual demands of Division I NCAA football or the NFL are probably as great as those in chess. But chance plays such a big role since real people are playing, and real people fumble, make interceptions, and fail to leave the field when they are supposed to leave. In our lives, we make the most elaborate plans–and time and chance wreck those plans. The real challenge is to overcome defeats, to keep trying in the face of disappointments, even when those disappointments are our own fault.  I was heartbroken at the end of today’s game, but that feeling did not last for long–football is, after all, only a game. Life is infinitely more serious. But the hardest lessons in life, as in football, are too often learned through the agony of defeat–but just as Tennessee will not repeat its end of game mistake (I can almost guarantee it), hopefully we will learn from our mistakes in life.