September 24th, 2013

Billy Reed: Don't overreact and kill football

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Billy Reed: Don't overreact and kill football
When the Redskins' Robert Griffin III went down with a knee injury, it sparked a debate about how soon he should return to action / inside photo from msn.foxsports.com/ cover photo from circus.com

At a time when football’s popularity — as measured by TV ratings — is at an all-time high, the sport also is under attack for being too violent. President Obama has said that if he had a son, he wouldn’t want him to play football. The esteemed columnist Dave Kindred recently agreed. 

Although catastrophic injuries and deaths happen in other sports, the ones in football get the most attention. That’s because, unlike most other sports except boxing, violence is an inherent part of football. In America, we love our violence as much as we love our guns. We sit glued to our seats in anticipation of the “big hit” — that tackle that all but plants a ball-carrier in the ground.

I understand the arguments against football. I’ve read the injury statistics, heard the horror stories, listened to the former players now crippled because of football injuries. Yet I can’t join those who say the sport should be abolished. I can’t even say that if I had a son, I’d be against him playing football if it was something he had a passion for doing.

It would depend on the kid, really. I’d like to think I’d be like my old friend Archie Manning, whom I met when he was a junior quarterback at Ole Miss in 1969.

Early in his senior year, Archie suffered a fractured left forearm. A plate was screwed into the arm to hold it together, and doggone if Archie wasn’t sent back into action for the big game against LSU.

The Ole Miss coach, Frank “Bruiser” Kinard, filling in for the ailing Johnny Vaught, should have been fired. He put Manning’s pro career at risk for the sake of trying to win one game. At the time, though, the media didn’t make much of it because playing hurt is what a real man did.

Archie learned something from that.  When he became a father, Archie didn’t even encourage his sons — Peyton, Cooper and Eli —  to play football. They had to come to him and ask. And although he granted permission, Archie monitored their progress closely. No way was some coach going to play one of his sons with a broken arm. In fact, when Cooper was diagnosed with a congenital defect that could have led to serious injury, Archie urged him to give up his scholarship at Ole Miss and quit, which he did.

Just as all the protective devices in the world will never make horse racing totally safe for the jockeys and horses, so will football never be able to eliminate the risk factor. The possibility of concussions and blown-out knees always will be there. But what can change is how the sport responds to injuries.

No coach is more revered than Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who spawned generations of imitators. Paul Hornung likes to tell stories about how Packer players avoided the training room because Lombardi expected them to play with injuries. “If you were a Packer, you just didn’t get hurt,” Hornung said.

While that might appeal to macho men, it wouldn’t be tolerated today. Consider Robert Griffin III, quarterback of the Washington Redskins, who suffered a serious injury to his right knee. Even after he was cleared to play by doctors, a debate raged throughout the NFL world of whether he was truly ready. That wouldn’t have happened back in the day.

The protection of the players must always be more important than the outcomes of games. Players must never be rushed back into action before they’re completely healed. And multiple injuries should be reason enough to end a player’s career, even if he wants to continue playing. The only thing more pitiful than a football player who has taken too many hits is a boxer who has taken too many punches.

When New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was found guilty of putting a bounty on the heads of rival players — that is, rewarded his players if they purposely injured certain opponents — he was suspended a year. That may not have been enough because what Payton did was unconscionable, completely against the spirit of football or any other sport.

From the NFL down to the PeeWee leagues, coaches must drill the proper blocking and tackling technique into their players. The purpose should never be to hurt an opponent, no matter the instant gratification for making the “big hit.” The penalties for dirty play should be intensified and chronic abusers — such as Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions — should be drummed out of the game.

What else can be done to help football help itself?

I believe that if a scholarship college player suffers a debilitating injury, the NCAA should pick up the tab for treatment as long as the injury is a problem. For example, a guy like Joe Namath should never pay a dime to have his damaged knees treated.

But I also don’t like to see former players going to court to seek damages on the grounds that they weren’t aware of the risks inherent in football. Sure, they were. That’s like former smokers claiming they didn’t know cigarettes could be harmful to their health. If you’re going to take the risk, you must accept responsibility for the consequences. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way in today’s litigious society. 

Every time I see a football player lying motionless after a hit, I immediately go into prayer mode. I think of the New England Patriots’ Darryl Stingley, paralyzed for life after getting clobbered by Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders. But everybody who has ever strapped on a helmet knows the risks. How could they not? 

At the pre-high school level, parents should carefully monitor their child’s progress. They also should insist that medical personnel are present at every game and that coaches aren’t just guys emulating what they see on TV. Special attention should be paid to concussions. 

If I had a 16-year-old son, I’d feel much better about him playing football than driving the family car. But it also would depend on the kind of kid he was. I would never force him to play against his will. I certainly would encourage him to take a break if he suffered a concussion. And just as I would hope he would drive defensively, so would I insist that he not be reckless on the field. 

Football is here to stay, so attempts to abolish it are a waste of time. But attempts to monitor it and regulate it should be ongoing. Being a football hero, at whatever level, isn’t worth a lifetime of misery.

 

 

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