When was the last time you planned out a car crash? Or practiced the safest way to run full speed into a brick wall? Never? Pity. You're not much of a problem solver. Definitely not proactive. Not like the National Football League. Facing a brain trauma crisis that threatens both football's medium-term profitability (via a series of lawsuits) and long-term viability (via a critical mass of Americans deciding not to watch nor participate in cognitive Russian Roulette), the sport's powers-that-be have settled on a two-step self-preservation strategy that basically works as follows:
1. Eliminate hitting and tackling that results in blows to the head;
2. Continue hitting and tackling otherwise, because, hey, this is football.
Last week, the NFL passed a rule prohibiting runners and defenders from lowering their heads and striking a forcible blow with the crown of their helmets when they are outside the tackle box, a football move seldom seen outside of vintage Earl Campbell YouTube clips, primarily because deliberately deploying one's head in the manner of an enraged Bighorn ram against another large human attempting to knock you flat is an excellent way to break one's neck. But never mind that. As league commissioner Roger Goodell put it, "We've demonstrated the game is safer and the game is better." The demonstrating doesn't stop there. Since last fall, the NFL has partnered with the Indianapolis-based national youth organization USA Football to expand and promote "Heads Up Football," a program purporting to teach new techniques that "literally take the whole head" out of actual tackling, thereby: (a) theoretically reducing the risk of brain trauma; (b) helping concerned parents feel less anxious about allowing their sons to be part of
the pro game's fan and participant feeder system an estimated three million youth football players nationwide.
Both efforts are undoubtedly well intentioned. So are others like them, including steeper fines for intentional helmet-to-helmet hits, altering kickoffs and the re-imagining of head-banging, sub-concussive line play as Jujitsu-based slap-fighting. Taken together, they reflect an optimistic, can-do mindset, and a core belief that the problem with football isn't football itself, but rather reckless, ignorant or untrained individual players who are essentially doing it wrong. University of North Carolina researcher Kevin Guskiewicz was awarded a 2011 MacArthur genius grant for his work on football head trauma. He is a member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee. He lets his young sons play the sport. He's a public proponent of "behavior modification" -- that is, teaching players to tackle while protecting their heads. Goodell blows the same trumpet in a Heads Up video, endorsing "the proper way to play the game." USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck takes the comforting, confident talk one step further, asserting that "there is no question that the game can be played safely and is safe, as long as it is taught properly and the players execute it properly."
In other words: There is no existential crisis. This can be fixed. A game that revolves around hitting other people as hard as you can is as safe as driving to work in the morning, provided you obey traffic signals, speed limits and stop signs. All of which sounds pretty great, as reassuring and nifty as safe cigarettes, except for one thing.
Like safe cigarettes, safe football is a myth.
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Full disclosure: I'm a football skeptic. A naysayer, even. So don't take my word on this. Ask an expert. Someone like NFL linebacker Scott Fujita, an uncommonly thoughtful man who makes his living, well, tackling. Go ahead, he says. Change the rules. Teach different techniques. Concussive helmet-to-helmet hits are still going to happen. So are concussive knee-to-helmet hits. And concussive helmet-to-face mask hits. And countless other subconcussive blows to the head, which research suggests are also dangerous. "There's increased emphasis on trying to clean up the game, you know, coaching guys up in 'proper technique' and all these catch phrases, and paying lip-service to everything," Fujita told author Matt Chaney. "It's just a brutal game, and I don't think you can technique -- using 'technique' as a verb here -- you can't technique the game into becoming safer. You can't even fine [players in] the game into becoming safer. And that's just the reality."
The head is connected to the shoulders. The shoulders are connected to the arms. The latter two are essential for hitting and tackling; the former cannot be unscrewed like a bottlecap and left on the sidelines. That's just the reality, no matter what Goodell claims the NFL is demonstrating.
Consider the league's new head-lowering penalty. Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith thinks it's ridiculous. So does Chicago Bears runner Matt Forte. Hall of Fame runner Marshall Faulk called the rule "stupid," and did so on NFL Network. Now, football players can be macho. They're paid to take and give physical punishment, not to worry about their long-term health and well-being. Over at Deadspin, Isaac Rauch argues that objections to the head-lowering penalty are a sign the NFL must be doing something right. Seeking answers, I called former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson.
Griping aside, I asked, does this rule make football safer?
"Dude," he said, "it's all [public relations]."
But shouldn't players be discouraged from leading with their heads?
"You can't control these movements," he said. "These guys are going too fast. They're reacting instinctively. Carrying the ball is very instinctive, the one thing you can't coach or legislate. The most effective way to continue to go forward when someone is trying to stop you is to lower your helmet and keep going. And when you lower your head, you're reacting to leverage, to what defenders are doing, to how they are going to tackle you."
Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio notes that instead of being a game changer, the new rule is actually quite limited. Players are still allowed to use their facemasks and the hairlines of their helmets -- that is, the fronts of their heads -- to initiate contact. They are still allowed to drop their pads and dip their helmets for protection and leverage. Blows delivered with the crown of the helmet can only be penalized if they are judged to be "forcible," a fuzzy term that describes … just about every type of contact that occurs on a football field.
According to the NFL, 11 hits during a 32-game span of the 2012 season would have drawn flags. But former Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard's frightening helmet-to-helmet collision with New England running back Stevan Ridley in the AFC title game would not have resulted in a penalty -- because while both players were dropping their heads, neither made contact with the top of his helmet.
"Even when a receiver in space gets the ball, we have to lower our head sometimes," Jackson says. "[Defensive backs] tackle extremely low. Go for your knees and ankles. When they do that, you either have to jump over them -- which is frowned upon -- or you meet them low. It's a natural reaction. So this rule is really silly."
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Sillier still is the Heads Up program, which promises "better, safer" tackles. According to a USA TODAY Sports report, tackling maxims like "biting the ball" (ramming your face into the ball when hitting a runner) and "ear-holing" (smacking your helmet into an opponent's earhole) are out; keeping your head to the side while launching up and into ballcarriers with a chest-first, double-uppercut motion is in. The goal? Making contact with your shoulder pads, not your helmet.
The hang-ups? Physics and biology.
During his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs, Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier dove to make a tackle and was kneed in the head. He suffered a concussion and was later diagnosed with a brain bleed. He says that from that point on, he never dropped his head in order to tackle; now a member of the NFL's Player Safety Advisory Committee, he also says that today's players can and should follow suit, and that doing so is simply a matter of changing "long-held habits." As Chaney points out, however, a quick YouTube search reveals that Lanier did plenty of helmet-ramming during his career. (The current safety advocate also favored clothesline tackling, a dangerous, bannable behavior that has, in fact, been banned.) According to Jackson, it's impossible not to hit with your helmet in football, in part because the head is connected to the shoulders, in part because the whole point of the game -- knocking another guy on his ass before he has a chance to return the favor -- requires players to create as much force and leverage as possible.
And how do you do that?
"The lowest man wins," Jackson says. "They always tell you that. How do you get low? You f-ing drop your head. I played free safety in high school, and I wasn't very good because I wasn't good at getting low and delivering a blow to somebody."
That changed when Jackson, a Division III All-American wide receiver, signed with the Broncos. The club moved him to tight end. He found himself having to block opponents who outweighed him by 50 pounds or more. Opponents who were fighting for their professional lives, just like him. So Jackson got low. Led with his head. Did what he had to do. "When you are trying to knock a big man down, you have to turn yourself into a missile," he says. "And that means hitting them with your face."
In USA Football's tutorial videos, players practice their safer, better tackles against empty air, foam pads and stationary opponents who seem to be imitating scarecrows. The double-uppercut movement is broken down into five distinct stages. There's plenty of time and space to take the right angle, launch into a tackle, maintain perfect form, keep one's head from getting bashed by tucking it under an opponent's armpit. Football becomes an exercise in aggressive, studied chest-bumping. The actual sport is completely different: players running at full speed, knees pumping, arms swinging, tripping and shoving and hitting and falling; players of varying sizes and strength, pin-balling around at ever-changing heights and angles; players not passively waiting to receive blows, but actively seeking to deliver them. Chaos. A football tackle is not like a tennis serve or a basketball free throw, static and repeatable. It's a violent, desperate physical snowflake, shaped by its equally violent, desperate environment.
When a USA Football regional manager tweeted out a photo of two coaches practicing Heads Up tackling, longtime Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist and former All-Big Ten defensive back Rick Telander assumed it was a joke. Imagine Adrian Peterson seeing that. Or any decent high school running back. Like Fujita, Telander isn't a spigot of reckless machismo. He can be critical of football, and has written extensively about the sport's costs. Still, he once had to bring opponents to the ground. He played the game to win. As such, he has one question about the safer, better way to tackle:
Does the ball carrier cooperate with you?
"You watch those videos and teaching sessions, and it's an obsessively controlled environment," Jackson says. "But maybe once a game would you find yourself in a situation like that. Nobody presents themselves like a perfect tackling form dummy. At all levels, tackling is really just by any means necessary. You don't get to stop and think about how you are going to do this thing you are about to do. You have to just do it. The ones who are good move up the ladder and make it to the NFL. It's not like you need amazing technique. Sometimes you just do this thing and it defies technique."
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Six years ago, a team of researchers outfitted an Illinois high school football team with special helmets that measured the location and magnitude of head impacts sustained during practices and games. They found that the prep players sustained greater head accelerations after impact during play than their college counterparts and wrote that their results highlighted "the need for coaching proper tackling techniques, such that the athlete keeps his head up and avoids contact with the top of the helmet." University of Michigan professor Steven Broglio was one of the study's co-authors. He still studies football brain trauma. Like North Carolina's Guskiewicz, he's a proponent of behavior modification. "We have data showing the impacts at the top of the head are the most significant impacts," Broglio says. "So we need to teach kids to hit and keep their heads up -- and now we're moving toward getting your head out of the tackling process altogether, which should reduce the risk of injury."
Telander has seen this before. During the 1970 season, Northwestern middle linebacker John Voorhees wore what his teammates dubbed "the electric hat," a helmet outfitted with electrodes and a bulky transmitter than sent g-force readings to the press box. The helmet was the brainchild of Dr. Stephen E. Reid Sr., a former Wildcats football player who was conducting a study of football head trauma; a first-of-its-kind device, it was built with the help of NASA engineers.
"One time we were playing UCLA out at the Coliseum in [Los Angeles]," Telander says. "We were leading at halftime. They stopped the game and wouldn't start the second half until the referees made John take that helmet off and wear another one. They thought he was receiving signals from the press box.
"The players all thought [the helmet] was nonsensical. Technology was not something we believed much in. It was still grunt and hit 'em as hard as you can football. [Reid] was so far ahead of his time it was beyond belief."
Even then, Telander recalls, tacklers were taught to keep their heads up. To "see what you hit." The reason? In 1966, head and neck injuries resulted in nearly two dozen deaths in high school and college football, leading an alarmed American Medical Association to call for an end to "spearing," the use of the helmet as a battering ram. Football authorities responded the same way they always do: by calling on coaches to teach "correct, head-up blocking and tackling," and demanding that officials strictly enforce rules prohibiting helmet contact. By 1976, "butt-blocking" (blows delivered with the face mask or front and top of the helmet to an opponent in close line play) and "face tackling" (driving the face mask or front and top of the helmet into a runner) were banned. The game itself was not the problem. The game itself is never the problem. Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian spoke for the football establishment: "I can't begin to tell of the number of clinics where I have lectured on the (spearing) problem. We don't teach this at Notre Dame; and over the years, I have done everything within my power to influence others to coach against it."
Parseghian said this in 1967.
Last season, more than 160 NFL players reportedly suffered concussions. No one even bothers to tally the number of subconcussive impacts that occur each week, possibly because calculating Pi would be less tedious. Enhanced tackling techniques are not enough. Rules tweaks are insufficient. By design, football is a collision sport; the only way to eliminate hits to the head is to eliminate hitting outright. Otherwise, safe football is as real as the Loch Ness Monster.
Sal Marinello has coached youth football for 15 years. He recently coached his son's junior high squad. He played the sport. He loves the sport. But he harbors no illusions. Football, he says, is not for everyone. Or even most people. It's inherently, irreducibly dangerous. "One of my buddies I coach with is also a police officer," says Marinello, a New York City-based athletic trainer and Manhattan College strength coach. "He always used to use the analogy that there's no nice way to put handcuffs on someone. Well, there's no nice way to tackle someone, either."
Why does Goodell pretend otherwise? Why is Hallenbeck pushing a revolutionary new tackling philosophy that's at least 45 years old? Perhaps because the NFL is being sued by more than 4,000 former players who allege the league lied about and covered up evidence that football can cause long-term cognitive damage. Perhaps because the number of children ages 6 to 12 playing the sport dropped 35 percent from 2007 to 2011. Perhaps because current and former players ranging from Peterson to Terry Bradshaw have said they will never let their sons participate. Perhaps because concussion expert Robert Cantu has written an entire book arguing that children under the age of 14 shouldn't play tackle football, and because Hall of Famer Ron Mix thinks the same prohibition should extend to age 15. In one of the Heads Up promotional videos, a USA Football coach is shown teaching safe -- ahem -- tackling technique to a group of football mothers. This is not a coincidence. In an article about the new helmet crown rule, ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert peeked behind the game's Oz-like curtain. Player safety rule changes, he wrote, are as important to the outside perception of the league as they are to actually increasing player safety.
Speaking of perception, remember this: When Goodell and others frame football safety as a matter of proper individual technique -- like slowing down for yield signs -- they also are suggesting whom to blame when something goes horribly wrong.
"To me, this is them admitting that this game is really, really bad for you and it's going to cause awful concussions and shorten your life and cause brain issues," Jackson says. "It's them admitting it and then absolving themselves of the guilt. Like, 'Hey, we tried to protect you. We changed the rule. We penalized and fined you. If you hit with your head and get a concussion, it's your f-ing fault.'
"But that's not true. How do you think that running full speed at someone and throwing your body at someone can be made safe? It can't and it's not. It's like driving a car. There's going to be car accidents no matter what."
During a 1970 game between Northwestern and Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind., Telander recalls, Voorhees spun away from two blockers to meet an opposing running back. Head up. A textbook tackle. The same safe way he had been taught. Nevertheless, the runner's left knee smashed into the side of Voorhees' helmet; in the press box, a sensor measured the force of the blow at 188 times the force of gravity. One of the biggest hits Dr. Reid ever measured. "I saw John go down," Telander says. "He actually was never out cold. But he couldn't get up for a while. He was looking for his mouth guard, and he wasn't even wearing one that game. That's how we knew he was messed up."
Jackson is only half-right. Football isn't like driving a car. It's like driving a car in a demolition derby. The collisions aren't accidents.