Helmet-to-helmet, a good rule

We probably should start with this declaration: I love football. I’ve watched it from the time I can remember anything at all. I’ve written about it for more than 50 years. Football has brought me great joy.

Now then, I have watched three college games from various press boxes this season, several more on television and have watched bits and pieces of four NFL games. I haven’t seen a high school game yet, but I’ll remedy that, hopefully this Friday night.

Already this season, I can’t tell you how many times helmet-to-helmet hits have occurred, followed by a yellow flag, followed by derisive comments from someone sitting near me. I’ll paraphrase here: “Dadgummit (really paraphrasing there), this is football! This isn’t ballet! This isn’t intramurals! Let ’em play. They are trying to ruin a great sport!”

Five years ago, that would have been me complaining. Not now.

It happened twice Saturday night in Starkville. Mississippi State’s marvelous quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was looking to pass when an LSU player crashed through the line and hit Fitzgerald, helmet to helmet. Both times, a flag was thrown. Both times, the ruling on the field was targeting, a purposeful helmet-to-helmet hit. Both times, by rule, the play was reviewed. Both times, the call was upheld. Both times, LSU was penalized 15 yards and the offending player was ejected from the game.

That’s as it should be. I would say the same had it been a State player hitting an LSU player in the same manner.

Both times, someone near me said something like what you read earlier. They said more, something like: “SEC football is not for sissies.”

“Those are the rules,” someone else said, which brought the familiar response that the rule makers are ruining football.

That’s just not so. My opinion: They are not trying to ruin football, they are trying to save football. We can’t continue to play a sport in which people suffer permanent brain damage from these helmet-to-helmet hits that cause delicate brain matter to rattle around in skulls.

Science tells us the damage ruins lives, sometimes 30 and 40 years later. We know it now for dead, solid certain. As you’ve read before in this space, a recent Boston University study of the brains of former NFL players revealed that 110 of 111 suffered from severe C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a devilish disease that results in myriad symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. It kills people. It is a miserable death.

Three of those victims were Mississippians, fine men named Bobby Crespino, Doug Cunningham and Willie Daniel, whose dessert years were destroyed because of a game they loved and played when they were far younger. All were victims of repeated helmet-to-helmet blows.

Frankly, I have struggled with whether or not football can ever be made safe to the point we won’t see cases like those mentioned above. It is, by nature, a violent sport. But it can be made safer. In fact, it is happening already. Watch and you will see.

We don’t see nearly as many helmet-to-helmet blows as we did even last season and certainly the season before. We see players purposefully avoiding such hits. We see players easing up when the opposing player obviously is headed out of bounds. We see pass rushers pulling up when the quarterback has thrown. In past years, they would have plowed into him. The rules are working.

It’s never going to be perfect. As one guy in the press box last Saturday night said, “Sometimes, the ball carrier lowers his head after the tackler has already launched.”

That’s true. But, if we are going to err, we should always err on the side of safety.

To his credit, Ed Orgeron, the LSU football coach who revels in the physicality of the sport, did not complain about the calls or the ejections. He saved his criticism for the offending players, saying that they know better and are taught to avoid such hits. “They will be punished,” Orgeron declared.

Good for Coach O. Good for football. We should make it as safe as we possibly can.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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