It’s not hard to see the impact of the NFL on Stratford during a crisp autumn night under the lights. As Stratford High took on Pomperaug last Friday, the jerseys of the New York Giants, Jets, and Patriots were sprinkled liberally throughout the stands amid Devil red. Football has replaced baseball as America’s pastime, and I’m sure every young man on that field (like most of us in the stands) has dreamed of what it would be like to play in the NFL.
However, a spate of vicious hits on defenseless players has rocked the football world in the last week. Several players were barely able to walk off the field in NFL games, victims of helmet-to-helmet collisions and the concussions that followed. The NFL responded quickly with a crackdown on illegal hits through the stricter enforcement of existing rules designed to protect players most vulnerable to these life-altering hits.
Normally, this would be heartening news, as rule changes and extra provisions for player safety inevitably trickle all the way down to the level of peewee football. Unfortunately, the very players this renewed enforcement is designed to protect are its most vocal critics.
Former Denver Broncos tight end Mark Schlereth screams on ESPN, “Why not just lose the pads and play touch football?” Respected coaches like Mike Ditka bemoan the missed tackles that will result, then ruminate on the possibility of increased knee injuries as players aim lower. Even former players like Daniel Morgan, a linebacker forced from the game due to repeated concussions in 2007, rail against the stiffer penalties for the same hits that hastened his early retirement.
They are unanimous in their refrain: That’s just the way football is played. We shouldn’t penalize players for doing what they were taught to do. These same plays are celebrated on highlights and in team meetings with the coaches. In a split second, you have to rely on instinct. James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is the current poster boy of those who feel the NFL has gone too far, turning the game we love into flag football. Of course, in less than eight minutes last Sunday, Harrison knocked two players out of the game with concussions after aiming at their necks and heads, then made post-game comments that he tries to hurt, not injure, opponents because it increases the Steelers’ chances of winning. The next day, he threatened to retire because of the new penalties that he played a major role in instituting.
Do it, Mr. Harrison—I dare you. You signed a six-year, $51.175 million contract after the 2008 season, and I’d love to see you take your high school diploma and try to make up the rest of that money while the rest of the NFL moves out its dark ages. The game cannot be hijacked by knuckle-draggers who view head injuries as a rite of passage. These are elite athletes. If they can’t manage to stay away from someone’s head on a tackle, find someone who possesses the talent to do so. Like the institution of the helmet itself in 1941, it won’t take away from the violence of the game as much as prevent that violence from needlessly taking someone’s life.
I admit that I have selfish reasons for hoping the NFL maintains its hard line: as a teacher, I’d like the brains I instruct at school to continue working into adulthood. A middle school student once shared how his parents were scrambling to find another doctor to write off his latest concussion so he could get back on the field. “We’re going to buy some kind of expensive helmet so they’ll get off my back,” he said. He figured it was his third concussion, but he hadn’t told anyone about the first, nor the neck pain that had been bothering him for weeks. I hope he saw a different game last week that didn’t get as much press, a game where Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed when he rammed the top of his helmet into an opposing player during a kickoff.
The truth is that the NFL’s attempt to protect its players truly does affect our kids, and the culture has to change at every level in order for player safety to be taken seriously. The NFL’s impact on Stratford must not come from the top of a helmet; one hopes they will use their heads before some of our kids lose theirs on a senseless hit.