Given the new NCAA rule changes and the hot discussion topics of helmet-to-helmet hits in both college and NFL football, I thought it would be a good time as a former player to share my opinion and thoughts regarding the highly controversial issue.
Earlier this month the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a new football rule that requires players who target and contact defenseless players above the shoulders to be subject to ejection. This new rule is effective for the 2013 season. The change increases the on-field penalty for targeting by adding the automatic ejection to the existing 15-yard penalty.
The NFL has approved a similar rule, requiring ejection and fines for players launching themselves into unnecessary helmet-to-helmet contact with another player who is in a defenseless position.
I think it is noteworthy that the NFL defines a player in a defenseless position as follows:
A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass;
A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner. If the receiver/runner is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player;
A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped;
A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air;
A player on the ground at the end of a play;
A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return;
A quarterback at any time after a change of possession
A player who receives a "blindside" block when the blocker is moving toward his own end line and I agree with those definitions and as a former player, I have many thoughts on this issue.
First, I applaud the NCAA and NFL for working hard to protect the player's wellness and the integrity of the game. I do believe that the leaders of the NCAA and NFL need to be extremely careful not to go overboard by drastically altering the fabric of our game, which is intense contact.
Football has been and always should be a high contact sport, conducted with technique, skill, respect for your fellow opponent and with impeccable sportsmanship. Today, many of those injuries are due to poor technique by players tackling with their heads down or tackling with the top of the head instead of the facemask.
Technique and skill are learned through great coaching and practice. During my playing days, we were taught to lead with the helmet, not as a weapon, but a midpoint for blocking leverage and balance. We were taught to strike a blow, head up, neck bowed, "leading with the rivets" (obviously rivets of the facemask) and "hit with our eyes". This coaching and those keys to remember allowed us to use proper technique and avoid injuries.
We also prepared in the weight room with the use of Nautilus weight machines that were specifically designed to strengthen our neck muscles.
Today, linemen are coached to use their hands and arms much more than in the past, as well as leverage and positioning to wall off the opponent versus the intense "bell ringing" drive blocks we became accustomed to seeing from the likes of John Hicks, Korey Stringer and Orlando Pace. I believe this has actually reduced neck and head injuries with offensive and defensive lineman.
We used to pride ourselves on the number of nicks, gashes and opponents school colors we had displayed on our helmets after a highly competitive, hard-hitting game. It was a badge of courage. Today, most helmets look as though they just came out of the box. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but is evidence of the change in style of play.
I believe the issues today with increased head and neck injuries in football certainly result from the increased size, strength and speed of today's velocity athletes- the safeties, cornerbacks and linebackers. Those players are significantly larger, anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds heavier than they were in the 70s, 80s and early 1990s.
Players are coached to play at 110 percent effort and intensity. At Ohio State, they are coached to fly to the ball, get there in a bad mood and are coached to be the "Silver Bullets." Football should always be played that way. I think it is virtually impossible to eliminate head to head contact. I do believe with directing the intent of those hits and teaching the best technique possible, we can protect the health of these athletes and protect the integrity of the terrific sport of NCAA and professional football.
The direction to protect the defenseless player is a good one. Here is where the league leaders and officials need to be careful. The speed of the game needs to be considered in these officiating judgments. As an example, a defensive player might be going full speed to make a proper tackle to the chest and shoulder and with a split second move by the offensive player; he may then strike the player "head to head" and never have had the intent to do so.
My belief is that the rules should be directed at flagrant hits to the defenseless player, while still allowing the game to be played with the effort and intensity that we have all come to love.
Another factor to be considered is the advance of medical technology and awareness of the neck and head injuries, specifically concussions. While those injuries have increased, so has the awareness and trepidation of characteristics and symptoms.
Recently, All-Pro Safety, Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers was asked how many concussions he had experienced in his career.
"I've had, I believe, eight or nine recorded concussions," Polamalu said. "We'll have another conversation after I'm done playing football." "When people say that you kind of just get ‒ you know, just feel like a little buzzed or dazed or had your bell rung ‒ they consider that a concussion. I wouldn't. But if that is considered a concussion, I would say any football player at least records 50 to 100 in the course of a year."
Also recently, President Barack Obama said he's a football fan, but that if he had a son, considering the impact the game has on its players, he would think long and hard before allowing his son to play. The president says that some of those rules changes might make football, in his words, "a bit less exciting" but that it will be much better for players.
I agree with the President's concern for the welfare of the players. He is also concerned that the college athlete, who has a significant injury, has nothing to fall back on and that there should be some consideration by the NCAA to the future of those athletes. I applaud that direction as well.
As a former player, I incurred many injuries. I had a broken wrist, fractured shoulder, and a knee injury requiring complete reconstruction and eventually replacement. I had many, many "bell ringing" experiences as Polamalu talks about, but never the serious head or neck injury while playing.
Now that my playing days are way behind me, I have had lower back spinal fusion surgery and recently had my C4, C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae fused together in my neck. Yes those were attributed to the hitting and compacting from my football days, but were also spurred along by arthritic growth as I have gotten older.
If I had the chance to relive all my Buckeye playing experiences, the blood, sweat and tears, the camaraderie with my team mates and to run out in front of 110,000 fellow buckeyes on Michigan Saturday, I would do it again and again.
I have two boys playing high school football in Pennsylvania. I am thrilled that they are able to enjoy some of those same experiences and have no fears for their safety.
I still believe the game should be preserved in the way it 'was meant to be played', with great intensity, hitting, competitiveness and sportsmanship. Helmet-to-helmet contact will always be a part of the game. Yes, the defenseless player should absolutely be protected and players violating the new rule should be punished. I applaud the NCAA and NFL for working to protect the health and wellness of our players and I urge those decision makers to not too far as to damage the greatest sport in the world.