This is How to Fix the NFL


December 8, 2017—8 minute read


For years, the NFL has been fumbling trying to handle ways to end its biggest problem: hits to the head. Has the answer been in front of them the whole time?

Stars are quitting, kids are being told they can't play and fans are tuning out in record numbers.

The problem with the NFL has nothing to do with pre-game protests.

It's all about hits to the head.

And the league, led by a man who just signed a $200 million contract, stumbles around, fumbling the matter, finding no answer.

Even though the solution has been in its hands all along — for decades, in fact.

Here's what Commissioner Roger Goodell must do to turn things around: stop the players from spearing.

Spearing is a dangerous act in which a tackler launches himself at a ball carrier head first, using the top or crown of the helmet to hit his opponent. It's banned in high school and college football, but not the NFL.

And that's a wretched disgrace. No wonder fans are departing in waves, and tens of millions in ad revenue have been lost. Because there's no mystery about the consequences of the league's tolerance toward spearing: traumatic brain and spine injuries, dementia and death. 

Take a look at these stats after 1976, when amateur football outlawed spearing. Between 1977 and 2001, the rate of cervical spinal cord injury among high school players was .52 per 100,000 players and 1.55 among college players. In pro football? The rate was 14. That's according to Doctors David Rakel and Robert Rakel, authors of the Textbook of Family Medicine.

The Rakels also determined that paralysis from the neck down (quadriplegia) dropped dramatically between 1976 and 1977, from 2.24 and 10.66 per 100,000 players in high school and college football to 1.30 and 2.66, respectively. With all those violent shots to the head, it's amazing no pro player has died on the field. Researchers counted 497 football deaths at all levels between 1945 to 2005. Of them 69 percent resulted from brain injury and 16 percent were due to spinal cord injury.

The league gently tries to discourage spearing but on this issue it's a schoolyard patsy. The players do whatever the hell they want.  

Sure, there are posters in NFL locker rooms. "See what you hit!" they urge. The idea is that if you keep your head up and tackle with your arms and shoulders, you reduce the risk to your head and your opponent's. These posters have been around since the 1950s. One modern version was included in a 2007 book called "The Art of Manliness." They don't work.

Nor does the NFL's rule against helmet-to-helmet collisions, which are prohibited but still occur regularly, in every game, over and over. Sometimes the rule is enforced with a penalty or fine. Mostly it's ignored. 

A perfectly awful example occurred Thursday night when running back Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, a leading rookie-of-the-year candidate, took a blow to the head from Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones. Jones struck the side of Kamara's helmet with the top of his own helmet, and the young star immediately left the game with a concussion. He was done for the night, and might not return for the rest of the year. His team lost. 

A still image of the hit on Alvin Kamara.

A still image of the hit on Alvin Kamara.


Replays of the hit were shown multiple times, but the NFL Network announcers Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth said nothing about Jones's illegal tackle.

Certainly there was no repeat by them of the outrage from this past week's games, which collectively represented a low point for the NFL.

Among the despicable acts were New England Patriot's star tight end Rob Gronkowski driving his shoulder into the head of a Buffalo Bills player as he lay face down following a play, and the "disgusting" display of cheap shots Monday night between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, as analyst Jon Gruden put it.

In case you missed that parade of heinous play, the game featured a terrifying injury to the Steelers top defender, linebacker Ryan Shazier, who hurled himself head first into Bengals receiver Josh Malone, then grabbed his lower back and rolled over in pain. It was clear he couldn't move his legs. On Wednesday, he underwent spinal stabilization surgery. He won't play again in 2017. Shazier's career could be over. Or worse.

One can only wish him the best possible outcome, but he got hurt precisely because he ignored the league's advice on how to tackle.

After he was carted off, Steelers receiver Juju Smith Schuster blindsided the Bengals' leading defender, Vontaze Burfict, knocking him out of the game with a concussion. While medics attended to Burfict, Pittsburgh's all-pro wideout Antonio Brown began yelling "Karma!" at him — a reference to Burfict having cold-cocked Brown last year.

Many players believe Burfict is the league's dirtiest player. Here's a video of some of this shameful hits.

Brown is not exactly an angel himself. He is known to brazenly taunt opponents, and in 2014, while returning a punt, he leaped up and karate-kicked a would-be tackler in the face.

Brown had his revenge on Monday. He caught the game-winning TD, though he paid the price. The Bengals George Iloka blasted him with a head-to-head shot.

Here's what needs to be done.

The league should institute an immediate disqualification penalty, with a loss of 15 yards, plus a fine and two-game suspension for any player who spears. If you lead with your head, if you lower your helmet to make a tackle or blast another player with it, you're gone.

Same thing for any player who targets an opponent's head with his arm, forearm or shoulder. If the goal is to bomb him in the helmet, you're done. Ditto any attempt to cause a head-to-head collision. Zero tolerance. Maximum consequences.

Pretty simple, isn't it, Roger?

Doing nothing isn't an option. Too many players are turning away from the game.

You saw this on Thursday during halftime. Game analyst Rodney Harrison, a punishing tackler who used his head as a weapon and was twice voted the NFL's dirtiest player during his 15 years in the league, said that when he saw Shazier's injury, he told his wife that their two sons, ages 10 and 13, would not be allowed to play football. "It was a very scary moment," he said.

"I think this could be a learning lesson for anybody playing football on any level. When you hit, when you tackle, you must tackle with your head up. Use your shoulders and wrap your arms."

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