Balancing player safety with a full contact sport

BY TOM CLOS | JUNE 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Big Ten and Ivy League's recent agreement to begin a collaborative effort to study head injuries is a great thing for sports and athletes in general. The number of deaths that could potentially be prevented because of a research program such as this is worth the time and effort of such a collaboration.

The suicides of former professional football players Dave Duerson, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and — most notably and recently — Junior Seau, were all tied in one way or another to long-term effects of brain injuries sustained during football. Their brain injuries to back to as early as college. Or before.

If an organization similar to this had been formed years ago, maybe these men would still be with us.

So naturally, when I heard the news that this group was formed, I, like the rest of the nation, stood up and applauded.

Unlike most, however, I was clapping with nine fingers instead of 10.

You see, that 10th finger was the football fan inside of me, and he is a little worried about how a major effort like this may affect the most popular sport in the nation. This new cautious attitude is needed and good, but I'm afraid of more extreme and more restricting overparenting might now be waiting in the future.

American football — and I emphasize 'American' — is meant to be physical. It's a full contact sport where at least one person gets tackled every five seconds, and there are opportunities for multiple players to get hurt on each and every play. The toughness it takes to survive in the sport, as well as the inherent violence that comes with it, is exactly what attracts more than 70,000 people to Kinnick Stadium on Saturdays every fall.

The Big Ten and the Ivy League employ some of the smartest people on the planet, and everyone knows that the doctors involved will do very good work and probably discover new risks that lead to head injuries in sports. So when that time comes and new information is passed along to the higher-ups running the sport, I beg of them not to get overly cautious.

I fully support the new research and attention going into head injuries, but at the same time I don't want to see running backs speeding down the field covered in bubble wrap in a few years.

But it might be too late.

The NFL changed the kickoff rule before last season that pushed kickoffs up to the 35 yard line from their previous spot at the 30 and the numbers don't lie. A total of 1,374 kickoffs (5.4 per game) were returned in 2011, significantly less than 2,033 (7.9 per game) in 2010. Also, kickoffs were returned a measly 53.4 percent of the time last season, compared to 80.1 percent the year before. They call it the most exciting play in football, but I'm scared that it's going to disapper.

The "No Fun League" also made a concerted effort last year to begin protecting its quarterbacks, making it impossible for any defensive player to breathe on them without inducing a penalty.

Don't ruin the sport. Please.

The NCAA got in on the destruction of fun in February when it not only instituted the 35-yard kick off, but also introduced another rule that prohibits players from leaping over others to block a punt in fear that someone will land awkwardly and be injured. 

People need to realize that injuries are a part of football — its the reason why I don't play and why most of the population doesn't either. We don't want to get hurt. The physical nature is what makes the sport so great, so please don't take that away from us completely.

Be sure to remember these examples when the next brain study is released that shows how running with a football can cause whiplash.

Current Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Hester said it best when the NFL instituted its kickoff rule.

"What's next?" he said.

I guess what I am really trying to say is, don't turn football into soccer. That's not good for anyone.

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