An unknown football team from the 1910s, shortly after reforms made the game significantly safer
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  • An unknown football team from the 1910s, shortly after reforms made the game significantly safer

Last weekend was one of the most violent displays of football in memory. In the college ranks, Rutgers defensive lineman Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after a head-on collision during the fourth quarter of a game against Army. Across the NFL a slew of nasty hits left players dazed or unconscious.

In the wake of this carnage, the NFL announced that it would begin suspending players for blows to the head and “devastating hits.”

The issue of head and neck injuries has for several years now been one of particular concern to the NFL, but to read and watch reactions to the hits last weekend, one would not know this. Pittsburgh Steelers defender James Harrison exemplified this ignorance when, after knocking Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs unconscious, he quipped, “I thought Cribbs was asleep… A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he’s just sleeping. He’s knocked out but he’s going to be OK.”

The problem, of course, is that a player with a violent brain injury—and, let us be clear, that is what a concussion is—is indeed hurt. He isn’t sleeping, he didn’t get his bell rung and he cannot and should not just shake it off. From Merril Hoge to Chris Chandler to Troy Aikman to scores of other less famous NFL alums, the league’s history overflows with people who have had their careers ended and their lives negatively affected by football-induced head trauma.

In the ESPN broadcast that followed the NFL’s announcement that it would begin suspending players for blows to the head, network anchor Stuart Scott and Matt Millen lamented that hard hits were part of football, and that getting rid of them would ruin the game. While that seems like an obtuse complaint, in one important respect, Scott and Millen are correct: Violence has played an important part of football throughout its history.

But, so have reasonable efforts to curb that violence, often in ways that transformed the game.

In the early days of college football, serious injury and death were seen as part of the game. The 1905 college football season, for example, produced 18 deaths and 149 serious injuries. Though an avid sportsman and fan of the game, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to use an executive order to ban football if colleges did not clean up the sport.

The result was the outlawing of the “flying wedge,” in which the two teams ran at each other at full speed with arms interlocked. This play had been one of the most important tactics used in early college football, so much so that Harvard’s mastery of it had helped them to win several national championships in the 1890s. But, rightly, the health of the players took precedence over a needless adherence to violent tactics for their own sake. Over the next century, helmets, face masks and rules prohibiting blows to the head have all been implemented—all out of a basic acknowledgment that the game’s violence needs to be tempered. None of these innovations or rule changes have the hurt the game; in fact, the NFL remains the most profitable sports league in the world.

In order to truly purge the league of the kind of harmful play that seems likely to lead to a genuine tragedy, the culture of the league needs to change. Despite several years of fines, announcements and the odd and rare suspension, players still see dramatic inflictions of violence as a key strategic element of the game. A diminutive and fleet-footed receiver is less effective if he has been leveled a few times, and a quarterback who has taken a shot to the head might get antsy in the pocket. The NFL has taken a positive first step by promising to mete out more frequent and severe suspensions for players who violate the new policy, but it remains to be seen whether these suspension will be frequent enough and long enough to change player behavior and, perhaps more importantly, the way that coaches teach hitting and tackling.

It would also make sense to begin tightening the in-game officiating of hits to the head. For example, for a first offense, a team could be given a warning along with the 15-yard penalty. For subsequent offenses, players who violate the rule would be ejected. This is, without a doubt, a dramatic step, but the league needs to make it so that violating the rule will have acute tactical repercussions. Players and coaches focused on winning would see dangerous play as a bad tactical decision.

The final step I would suggest is one that is not often discussed in relation to this issue: guaranteeing player salaries. The NFL remains the only major sports league in America that does not guarantee player salaries. With some exceptions, the team can cut any player, thereby terminating the remainder of his contract. This has helped to create a culture in which teams see their players as largely disposable and fungible assets, and as such they do not feel properly motivated to protect the health of their players. The players, fearing getting cut, will play through injuries, not report symptoms of concussions and otherwise make poor decisions about their health for fear of being accused of being malingerers, an accusation that can often get them ushered out of the league.

Guaranteed contracts would provide teams with a powerful incentive to protect the health of their players and to work towards creating rules and enforcement that do not put their multimillion dollar assets at risk. In Major League Baseball and the NBA, teams are much more careful about letting hurt players play because if they return too soon and suffer long-term damage, the teams will end up paying for damaged goods. Similarly, if an NFL team knew that returning a quarterback back to action from a concussion too soon could shorten his career, they might take a more long-term approach that would, in the end, be better for the player’s health.

Though football is much different than it was in 1905, we should nonetheless remember the lessons of that period. As players get faster and stronger year by year, and if the NFL does not take aggressive steps to curb needlessly dangerous play, it is only a matter of time before the league suffers its first on-field death. Though the James Harrisons and Stuart Scotts of the world might not get it, concussions are a serious issue that have the capacity to destroy the mental health and stability of the people who fall victim to them. There are dozens of graves to remind us of what football can be if not properly regulated. That is what the NFL has rightly sought to avoid, but it needs to do more.