Sunday Discussion: Violence and the Future of Football

Donald Miralle

Football isn't getting any safer. Do we need to do something about it, and if so, what?

Welcome to the new look RBR. Today I'm all dizzy and happy with all the great new writers and kind of overwhelmed with this cornucopia of Tide info, and it seems a lot of y'all are, too.

Recognizing how happy everybody is, and also recognizing the value of smoothing out those troublesome old emotional ups and downs, I thought I'd perform a public service by giving you a real downer of an article on violence in college football. In my opinion, the increasing violence of the sport is a serious problem that threatens the future of the game.

I see two main aspects of the problem. One is all the new concussion info that has come out, and the other is the simple fact of the increasing athleticism of players. Let's talk a little about both.

Concussions

According to the Sports Concussion Institute, the impact speed of a professional boxer's punch is about 20 mph, while the impact speed of a tackle from a sprinting football player is about 25 mph. When you consider that the football player is putting his entire body weight into it while the boxer is just throwing his fist, it's small wonder that football is the sport with the most concussion risk for males, with some estimates saying that there is usually at least one mild concussion in every football game.

Headache and dizziness are the most common symptoms immediately following a "concussive incident," but 47% of athletes do not report any symptoms after a concussive blow. This is troubling because once a person suffers a concussion, he is about four times more likely to sustain a second one, and multiple concussions make an individual both more susceptible to future concussions and less able to recover from them. Nevertheless, studies have shown that about 31% of concussed football players are back on the field after a few plays, and about 1 in 15 concussed football players will suffer a second concussion the same season.

Multiple concussions are bad news. They can cause mild cognitive impairments and post-concussion syndrome (shell shock), and most seriously, they are significantly linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, which has been diagnosed at an alarming rate in autopsies of NFL veterans, causes progressive brain degeneration, decreased brain function and erratic bursts of violence. It is suspected that CTE may have played a role in the recent violent deaths of, among others, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.

Bigger and Badder Players

This is obviously linked to the last topic because concussions occur when something causes sudden movement or rotation of the brain. Unfortunately, violent collisions involving today's bigger and faster players can often cause other injuries as well.

Put another way, I can remember when running backs would be stars for 10 years or more, just like everybody else.

I had a little trouble running down the weights of Alabama's starting offensive lines in the 1960s, but the 1961 roster at this site shows an average weight on the team of 195. And while I'm not sure where these numbers came from, this article in something called the Federal Way Mirror says that Alabama's great 1966 team had an offensive line averaging 194, only 19 players over 200, and the largest player clocked in at 223.

This year's starting offensive line for Alabama averaged 314. Collectively, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjiou and Chance Warmack are listed at 966 pounds, compared to 970 for the entire 1966 offensive line. Mr. Federal Way Mirror guy also tells us that there are 18 guys on his local high school team clocking in at 235 or more, bigger than any player that went 11-0 for Bama in 1966.

In the 1950s, the average NFL offensive lineman weighed 234, according to this niftily illustrated article in Business Insider. In the 60s it was 251. In the ‘70s it was 255. In the ‘80s, it was 272, and by 1988 there were three 300-pounders in the NFL. Today, the average NFL offensive lineman weighs 311, and to understand how stupendously huge that is, just realize that those NFL offensive linemen are almost as big as Alabama's.

I don't think today's guys are any slower, either. What I think is that they are bigger, stronger, faster, better-trained, better-coached and more dangerous. And the trend shows no sign of stopping.

Pro Bowl safety Bernard Pollard said this week that he believes the NFL will not exist in thirty years:

The league is trying to move in the right direction [with player safety], but, at the same time, [coaches] want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out. And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees. The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field. We've had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.

What To Do, What To Do - And No Politics!

This week the Fan-In-Chief weighed in and, without getting overly political, it resonates when the President speaks about any subject. After saying he would "think long and twice" about letting his son play football, President Obama went on to say this:

Those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.

I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.

I am hoping for a lot of feedback from the RBR readers on this, so I'll give you my view to get us started. I brought up Obama's comments because he made important points I agree with and also some that I don't.

I don't like the long, hard thoughts about what he'd let his son do. Mr. President, you don't have a son, and I don't think you're well-qualified to say how you would handle something you don't have. If you had a real son, you might be a little quicker on the uptake on the benefits of playing football, not the least of which is the outlet for the violence that young males have to unleash on somebody. (You can ask Brent Musberger about some of the other benefits.)

There's no need to take this kind of overly-dramatic view of the situation. Football is not destroying our future, and I think it would be a terrible mistake to stop encouraging kids to play the game. We don't need a whole new game, either, just a tweaked game.

Nevertheless, the arc that football is currently on is not sustainable over the long haul. We're nearing the breaking point with violence already and if it gets much worse, the questions about whether to let your kids play football will multiply exponentially. After all, the trend line of these last few decades is as clear as the increased bulk of the players when it comes to parents becoming more cautious and protective of their kids.

So the game does have to change, and where I'm squarely with Obama is on the idea that fans who really love the game need to come to grips with reality and invite the changes that can keep the sport vibrant.

Listen, I'm a football traditionalist. I fuss and grumble over the new rule changes just like everybody else, and shake my fists when a Bama player is called for ringing up an intended receiver or a quarterback with a hit that would've been perfectly legal and legitimate five years ago, would even have earned "bingo, that's a goody" a few decades back.

But then I remember that I love the game, and I want it to last. That settles me down.

Hope for the best.

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