The concussion discussion in football has grown louder the past five years, but there remains no known remedy for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is associated with blows to the head in football. Still, the conversation has spawned related benefits. The outrage over head injuries has helped elevate the discussion on player safety from head to toe — not just head.
Look at the rules changes for the 2018 college football season. The insidious crackback block — the blindside hit delivered by a player in motion on a defender in space outside the tackle box — has been outlawed.
Any kickoff can be fair caught and automatically placed at the 25-yard line to create fewer of the high-impact returns that result in injuries. Hurdling the center to block a field goal or extra point attempt is also banned.
Is this what saves football? The drip, drip, drip of rules changes to protect players?
“Everyone is analyzing safety, and it is trending in a positive direction, which is good for football,” says Jack Marucci, the head athletic trainer at Louisiana State University. “We’re trying to make the game safer. Football will be here in 50 years.”
So while we have been agonizing over CTE — and while researchers keep looking for the drug that will curb its effects — the caretakers of the sport have been compelled to address the safety of knees, hands, shoulders and arms.
No longer can a defender take a running start and hurdle the center on a field goal try. Sooner or later, the scouting report was going to target the players leaping over blockers and command the center to stand up and flip that hurdler on his head.
College football has a new rule that requires knee pads to actually cover the knee. Is that going to protect a player from wrenching a knee and tearing a ligament? Probably not, but banging a knee on solid turf has its own set of pains.
So while research continues for a safer helmet — while targeting infractions are enforced and concussion protocols are mandated — it is a just cause to make the rest of the body safe too.
Of course, the rules changes have spawned charges that the caretakers of the game are making football players timid. That’s bunk. There is nothing timid about them. It will take much more than outlawing the crackback block to make the players timid.
Even so, making the game safer will not necessarily blunt the other pressures on football participation. Single-sport specialization is taking players from football, and so is a demographic shift in schools. Children from other parts of the world who grew up on soccer, basketball and, perhaps, cricket have their own ideas of fun. There is also the cost of football equipment to consider, as well as the aging population of trained game officials who are not being replaced fast enough.
The most recent participation numbers in 11-player football from the National Federation of State High School Associations (2017 season) show a drop of 25,901 players or a 2.5 percent decrease from 2016. Football is still the top participatory sport in high school. The number of schools offering 11-player football increased by 52 from the 2016 season to the 2017 season. Football is going to be around for a while, and what it needs is constant vigilance on what’s safe and what’s not.
Ed Etzel, a sports psychologist at West Virginia University and a former Olympic athlete, says the issue of player safety is tied to the “closed culture” of football, the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mentality. Football can be made safer — and sustain pressure from those who would see it go away — if high school football programs, college football programs, and professional franchises were less opaque about treatment, drugs and strength and conditioning rituals.
“Awareness,” says Etzel, “may facilitate change.” That is, the more we on the outside know, the more we can push to change what’s on the inside. The tragic death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair in June after he was hospitalized following a strength and conditioning workout is going to open a window into this “closed culture.” My hope is that this case is not settled too soon, not before we get a glimpse behind the locked doors to the football offices and what the players are asked to do.
I am routinely asked, “Is football going to be around in 50 years?”
I look at this momentum in favor of increased player safety, and the coaches and team owners being compelled to get with the surge of safety protocols, and I say, “Yes, probably, football will be around.” With the power of information, the drip, drip, drip can turn into a wave.