Head injury issue puts football at a crossroads

Published 11:38 am Thursday, May 5, 2011

Once upon a time, a head hit was a laughing matter in football.

Old-timers told stories about how they went back into the big game after being knocked out, awakened by smelling salts and unable to figure out which was the right sideline to join.

It was a mark of honor to knock someone out of a game, literally, with a mind-jarring blow to the head.

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Now, it is no longer just “part of the game.” It is a serious issue that could threaten the future of the sport at all levels.

Football has faced a crisis like this before. In the game’s infancy, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to outlaw the game after 19 players died in the 1905 season.

Before the number of players on the field was reduced from 15 to 11 and rules changes — such as banning the “flying wedge” formation of interlocked players, the forward pass and the mandating of helmets — made the sport the safer, football made cage fighting seem civilized.

Roosevelt’s threat also led to the formation of the NCAA to regulate what had been a chaotic sport.

Now football faces similar jeopardy.

The suicide in February and later analysis of the donated brain tissue of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson was just another symptom of a serious problem in a game enjoyed by millions.

Scientists have concluded that repeated head hits can lead to serious, long-term brain injury. Football is a sport of violent collisions and some of them are leading to debilitating brain injuries. With athletes bigger, stronger and faster than ever, the amount of force in these collisions has only increased.

The governing bodies at all levels of football have made some positive steps as far as dealing with this very serious problem. Coaches have made a serious effort to teach proper tackling technique and officials, armed with new rules, are penalizing those who engage in helmet-to-helmet hits.

Equipment manufacturers are busily researching and prototyping helmets designed to cushion the high-speed impacts to the head.

The question is — will it be enough?

Football is the greatest of games. It teaches youngsters discipline, pride, effort and teamwork. It uses every size and shape of athlete. The endless strategic permutations of formations and plays are more science than art. With its ideally timed play stoppages, it is perfect fodder for TV ratings gold.

But is this game worth whole generations of players subjected to horrible brain, spinal and other injuries? Is it worth the cost of even one good man’s life?

Duerson, who shot himself in the chest and asked that his brain be donated to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine, knew what the post-mortem analysis of his brain tissue confirmed.

The game that he loved resulted in his torment and death.

Football is at a crossroads. If it can’t be made safer, it might not need to exist.

It is just a game, after all.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. You can follow him on Twitter at vpsportseditor. He can be reached at 601-636-4545, ext. 142 or at swilson@vicksburgpost.com.