Football Officials Protecting Players or The Game?
Historic football excuses thrive in modern debate over brutality
Lawsuits, criticism explode and officials project blame onto individuals
Old talking points of football apology resonate yet as officials tout anti-concussion measures like trainers along sidelines, new rules for safer play, injury reduction and expert consultation—same type of promises heard from gridiron leaders during the Victorian Era
Part 1 of an ongoing review of football crisis and official talk, celebrating Super Bowl Month on ChaneysBlog.com
By Matt Chaney
Monday, January 7, 2013
American football gets lambasted in public for maiming and killing, denounced by an influential movement of critics, and game officials pledge safer play based on their new concepts of prevention, including:
*Qualified trainers and doctors will patrol sidelines.
*State-of-art medical response will treat the rare severe casualties.
*Limits will govern length of practices.
*Injury tracking will cut rates already on decline.
*Coaches will properly train players.
*Every player will undergo medical prescreening.
*Experts will lead safety reform in rulemaking and research.
*Referees and coaches will enforce new rules of experts.
*Players will follow new rules of experts.
Sounds familiar, these steps, a practical recitation of talking points for contemporary “safer football” promoted by the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, in face of lawsuit frenzy against the league and sport in general, along with festering disgust in the public.
Except the football rhetoric is 119 years old, from 1894, a packaged response during the game’s initial siege against formidable opposition seeking abolishment.
Erstwhile math professor Eugene L. Richards outlined
the football argument in a commentary he
wrote for Popular Mechanics while at
Camp pioneered play design and rulemaking for the game, and, equally important, he established a football public-relations framework with his prodigious communication of the sport, essays, books and speeches. Notably for this discussion, Camp personally crafted and disseminated feel-good themes of tackle football that endure, like manliness, education, industriousness, patriotism and social event, to obscure the irremovable, reprehensible byproduct of mass carnage for young bodies and minds.
Richards’ essay of November 1894, “The Football Situation,” stands as original template in football apology, timeless talking points that channel Camp’s defense of the gridiron. Richards responded to period critics who alleged football “evils” negated any “good,” and his assertions resonate today for the debate renewed, continuing:
*News media sensationalize gridiron violence and injuries.
*Only football abolitionists and “timid” people see unnecessary danger.
*Football teaches teamwork, courage, while building mind and body.
*Football is part-and-parcel with a complete education.
*Football saves urban or underprivileged boys from streets.
*Football is salvation for youths everywhere.
*Football provides healthy catharsis for male aggression.
*Seriously injured players are typically predisposed, physically or genetically.
Richards also penned an introduction for Camp’s book release that season, Football Facts and Figures, “a resoundingly pro-football polemic” that began with “a barrage of football propaganda,” observes author John Sayle Watterson, football historian. “Anyone who read Camp’s book, especially the introductory excerpts, might come away wondering what all the critical fuss was about. According to the ‘facts and figures’ so authoritatively interpreted, no one suffered permanent injuries, and all but a cranky handful agreed that football’s virtues outweighed its shortcomings.”
“Walter Camp worked with fellow supporters of football to stave off critics and to create a climate of opinion favorable to the college game.”
Same PR challenge confronts officials of tackle football today, the game roundly sued in courts, on civil complaints exploding from youth leagues to the NFL. The combustible contemporary crisis, fueled by concussion fear particularly since 2009, carries forward with bad news on a roll.
Research findings outside of football’s loyalist experts stream in one direction now, against the game, especially regarding kids and brain trauma, while regular doctor denouncements lead a cacophony of public naysaying that includes nurses, journalists, authors, academics, school administrators, lawyers, athletes, coaches, and more citizens speaking out in multi-media. Terrifying off-field violence of active and retired NFL players, against themselves and others, jars the football-loving public on regular basis. And grave casualties continue unabated, likely much as ever, with hundreds occurring last year (versus a fraction reported by football-funded research) and modern trauma care and antibiotics saving upwards of 100 players who would have died a century previous, among known injuries of 2011. Many more football problems, of course, contribute to the sport’s deflating public image.
Roger Goodell, the unofficial president of Football America, knows the standard talking points of defending gridiron malfeasance, if not rhetorical origins, having himself relied on virtually all lines rooted to Camp PR at Old Yale. Curious whether Goodell actually believes what he says presently, because independent analysts see little substance emerging in his ballyhooed “safety” plan for players from children to adults.
“This public awareness fundamentally has nothing to
do with what the NFL actually puts out as a product,” says Daniel Durbin, media
professor at the
Harshest critics of Goodell label his brain-injury policy as transparent, flimsy legalize for beleaguered tackle football.
Thus the question: Do football advocates like Goodell seek to protect players or their sport?
This review continues by examining talking points of
football apology found in statements of present-day officials and associates,
promoting “safer” tackle football in
P1. Safe tackling reduces brain risk, taught by coaches and enforced by referees
Indianapolis-based USA Football functions as youth-football arm of the NFL, funded by the league and union. Scott Hallenbeck, USAF executive director, joins NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others in trumpeting what they call revolutionary safe tackling, Heads Up Football. “There is no question that the game can be played safely and is safe,” Hallenbeck says, “as long as it is taught properly and the players execute it properly.”
“You have to learn how to tackle safely and how to play the game safely,” says Goodell, in canned video. “What we’re trying to get (young players) to do is change the culture of football, to more of a culture of safety, to understand that we want to teach them the proper way to play the game. But we want to do it safely.”
“In football, it is essential to introduce proper tackling techniques early in a player’s career and to avoid unnecessary head contact,” says Dr. Stanley Herring, team physician for the Seattle Seahawks who serves on wellness committees for both the NFL and USA Football, in prepared statement. “This is achieved through USA Football’s Heads Up Football program, which is worthy of strong endorsement by experts in medicine and the youth football community.”
On the contrary, realities of this so-called technique are problematic, beginning with merely explaining how to apply it in tackle football. Eyesight ascertains that forward body leverage and modern helmets rule the vicious colliding, commonly head-on among combatants, but Heads Up promoters remain dogged.
“Your head’s going to be up. You’re literally going to take this whole head out of it,” Hallenbeck says, trying to demonstrate, if poorly, during an interview with WISH TV. “You’re not gonna be turned to the side. You’re not going to be any of that. You’re going straight in and, actually, your head’s going to be out of the tackles.”
Actually sounds impossible, excepting collisions among players meeting from convenient angles. Heads Up Football in theory would be strictly chest-banging, with players somehow trained to keep their heads “out of it” in head-on avenues narrowing down to zero-degree smashups. People like Hallenbeck propose this in straight face and critics howl in response, of course, led by players of the present and past.
“It seems to me the height of grandiosity to assume you can trick people into believing that running into other people at high speeds can be made safe,” writes Nate Jackson, author and former Broncos tight end, for Slate and Deadspin. “The human body, moving forward at high speeds, does not travel perpendicular to the ground. It naturally leans forward, and the head is at the forward-most point of that natural lean. To ask the body, while traveling at that speed, to crane the neck up and back, in defiance of physics, is a fool’s errand.”
No one can teach and instill such tackling and referees cannot enforce it, says every football insider I meet today, as former college player and coach myself, including coaches, referees and administrators speaking anonymously.
And so says Dr. Paul Butler
Butler rebukes the old, recyclable idea of “proper contact”
in tackle football, its various labels ranging from “form tackling” and “head
up” of the 1970s, when game experts devised the concept, to “behavior modification” and Heads Up of late. “I know
coaches are trying to teach children to tackle with their shoulders and not
Veteran NFL linebacker Scott Fujita of the Browns, sidelined most of this season after suffering an apparent neck injury, said last year that coaches were hopeless for teaching “safe tackling,” despite their loyal claiming it’s possible in news quotes and live sermons. “There’s increased emphasis on trying to clean up the game, you know,” Fujita says, “coaching guys up in ‘proper technique’ and all these catch phrases, and paying lip-service to everything. It’s just a brutal game, (however), and I don’t think you can technique—using ‘technique’ as a verb here—you can’t technique the game into becoming safer. You can’t even (player) fine the game into become safer. And that’s just the reality.”
Game referees of prep and college football, meanwhile, are expected to enforce the null-and-void “anti-butting” rule long in the books, also cooked-up by game experts in the 1970s. The infraction is hardly ever called for its impossible premise, prohibiting players from striking with crown of the helmet or even facemask—policy instantly fallible upon every center snap, in any game from 5-year-olds to adults, as linemen shoot into each other.
In addition, even when avoiding use of helmet crown
for head-on contact, facemask smashing is necessary by at least one party while factors like whiplash also jar cerebral matter. “Brain trauma is
inevitable,” says Chris Nowinski, concussion authority, co-founder
of the Sports Legacy Institute at
For questions of legal culpability over toothless policy capable of fostering danger, national football organizations and personnel have thus far shirked liability, from USA Football to the NFL. Thanks goes in no small part to historically crafted smokescreen of “head up” theory and sidekick, the inapplicable anti-butting rule.
But legal confusion and disregard about “safe tackling” reign among personnel tending football’s maw. Individuals are targets of lawsuits for their unfortunately fallible mission. Vulnerable parties include coaches, trainers, administrators of schools and municipalities, field referees and athletes.
Nothing changes brutal football’s covering law for impacts, the dictating physics and high-tech helmets. “Most
reforms are unlikely to be implemented and enforced, for a variety of reasons,”
says Dr. Larry Robbins, an
Next installment in classic talking points of football apology: P2. ‘Terrible injuries are freak accidents in safer football’
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, teacher and restaurant worker residing in Missouri, USA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chaney holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southeast Missouri State University (1985), where he played football and coached as a student assistant, and a master's degree in media studies from the University of Central Missouri (2001). For more information, including about his book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football (2009), visit the homepage at www.fourwallspublishing.com.