Austin Collie Was Lucky; How Much Luck Does The NFL Have Left?

How many more players have to be carted off the field before the NFL really cracks down on the violence?

The Indianapolis Colts' Austin Collie is a lucky man tonight -- he "only" has a concussion. Late reports say he's "sitting up and is alert" in the locker room. That's good news...

But seriously -- how many more helmet hits do we have to have in the NFL before the league really, really, no-we-mean-it-really-this-time cracks down on this kind of violence?

Yes, I know. It's football. It's a violent sport. Americans love the hitting and the bloodlust and that's part of what makes football as popular as it is.

But what's it going to take? There have been players paralyzed in both pro and college games -- one as recently as three weeks ago when Eric LeGrand of Rutgers suffered a spinal cord injury in an Oct. 17 game against Army.

Those who think it's "just the way the game is played", as the Steelers' Troy Polamalu recently stated when he claimed that commissioner Roger Goodell had "too much power" in the recent fines of players, including his teammate James Harrison, for hits that could have caused injury. SB Nation Chicago's Don Hamel, in that link, made a case that the NFL is trying to have it both ways, in its recent honoring of the top 100 of all-time:

The league is trumpeting these legends' tough, physical play as the standard for greatness, while trying to eradicate it from today's game. The NFL has promoted a certain behavior in its players over the course of time. But now they're using fines and threats of suspension to modify that behavior, mid-stream. When scientists do that, it's called negative reinforcement.

It's called something much different when your employer does it.

He's got a point. But today's players and the equipment used to play the game may have gotten too far ahead of the rules. Consider what football was a century ago, when its "flying wedge" and other brutal practices caused 19 deaths in 1905, led to calls to ban the sport until President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, with a resulting rule change:

Leading the effort to modernize the game was President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt summoned Walter Camp and representatives of Princeton, Harvard and Yale to the White House, in an attempt to find ways to lessen the violence. Adding to the movement for change was Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University. After a player on an opposing team was killed during a game with N. Y. U., MacCracken organized a meeting to decide if football should be banned. Of the thirteen institutions represented at the meeting, six voted to ban the sport.

MacCracken’s meeting led to major changes in the game of football. The biggest changes involved creating space between the players. To create space vertically, a neutral zone was established at the line of scrimmage and as a way of spreading out the players horizontally, the forward pass was legalized.

The forward pass saved football, and helped make it the popular sport it is today. But times and human beings change. Today's rules, tweaked as they are already, don't account for exceptionally strong human beings with plastic armor on their heads slamming into other exceptionally strong human beings. There has to be a way to adjust the way college and pro football players play their sport to make it safer, while still allowing for players to hit each other -- that is, after all, the point of defending, to try to stop the offensive player by any legal means.

It's defining what should be "legal" that is the center of the current controversy. If you looked at the faces of Collie's teammates -- and even the opposing Philadelphia Eagles -- when he was lying motionless on the field in Philadelphia for several minutes this evening, some of them seemingly on the verge of tears, you'd probably get them to admit privately that something has to be done. (Props to the Eagles players for applauding as Collie was wheeled off on a stretcher.)

To date, there has been only one fatality on an NFL field -- Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack during a game on October 24, 1971. It was during a game against the Bears, and I vividly remember watching this game and seeing him collapse on the field, and watching the Bears' Dick Butkus stand over him with a look of astonishment and horror on his face. The details are in the link; it's a must-read for any football fan, because that incident has faded into memory 39 years later. The video is never shown out of respect to Hughes' family.

Chuck Hughes' death during an NFL game had nothing to do with being hit. But please, NFL. Please, NCAA. Do something now. Before a player does die on the field from being hit.

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