After the rash of nasty hits this past weekend (who knew football involved hitting people?), the NFL is taking drastic steps to curb vicious helmet-to-helmet hits, namely larger fines and threatening players with suspensions.
But these stricter enforcements are designed only to make it look like the NFL is trying to do something. Looking like you’re fixing something and actually fixing it are two different things, and these bigger fines aren’t going to solve the problem, if indeed the NFL truly wants to solve it.
Football is, inherently, a contact sport. You can do your best to prevent concussions, but you’ll never get rid of them entirely, just as you’ll never be able to rid the sport of torn ACLs, sprained ankles and Tony Siragusa.
Part of the problem, at the least the way I see it, is in the design of the NFL’s protective gear, namely helmets. The NFL wants to avoid helmet-to-helmet collisions, because they can lead to severe neck and brain injuries. Doesn’t that suggest to you that the helmet itself is part of the problem?
You could argue that NFL players right now are TOO well-protected. The helmets they use are so heavily cushioned on the inside and so rigid on the outside, that it’s easy to feel like you can bash your head against anything and come out intact.
Take it from someone who played football for ten years. Wearing a helmet makes you much more inclined to bash your head against things. Just ask Gus Frerotte. You see players bash their helmets together right before games to get fired up.
Do you see basketball players doing the same thing with their bare heads? No, you do not. That would be insane.
With so much protection on your head and your shoulders, an individual has far less fear about launching himself into other people and objects. Your instinct to slow down and protect your own head is removed.
That’s the problem with helmet-to-helmet hits right now. The hits are bad, but the helmet makes the hits that much worse. They speed up the collision, make your head that much harder, and expand the size of your head's surface area to make a collision with another head more likely.
There are contact sports that allow tackling and don’t use helmets, as you well know. Rugby and Australian rules football are both sports that feature rough tackling, but the absence of helmets and pads make tacklers much more self-aware of HOW they’re tackling someone else. You’re not gonna lower your head and leave your feet to drill someone if you know your head is utterly defenseless.
If the NFL is serious about reducing concussions (I suspect they aren’t), then they need to stop looking at how players play and more at what they’re wearing. And they’re going to need ask medical professionals if sending players out onto the field fully armored does more harm than good.