American Football is a violent sport. Players wear body armor including crash helmets which have steadily improved over the years. Unfortunately helmets and rigid shoulder pads have a dual purpose: while they offer a certain amount of player protection, they also make hits by a player against an opposing player far more violent.
There is no doubt that many players suffer long term, debilitating injuries. The suicide of Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau, Jr. and the murder-suicide by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher are, in part, the result of head injuries and concussions sustained by these players.
So far technology has not provided a suitable answer. While helmet technology has been improved, and investments continue to be made in the technology, nothing at all has been done to lessen the offensive use of helmets. The helmet outer skin is strong, rigid and lethal plastic material and does not crack or fissure on impact. No material on the outside of the helmet lessen the shock of impact. While the league is (finally) taking steps to penalize players on helmet to helmet impacts, they are less aggressive in judging hits to knees and shins or impact on ribs. While some players, especially some quarterbacks, wear shock-absorbing cushioning around the ribs, a number of prominent players (Michael Vick, Tim Tebow) suffer from serious rib injury.
If the exterior of helmets was covered with a softer reactive material, injury could be reduced and the use of the helmet as a battering ram would potentially be less effective.
But above all league rules about ferocious hits, not just helmet to helmet, needs to be changed. Only in this way can injury be prevented.
Soccer (known as Football everywhere except the U.S.) has rules that should be applied to American football. The yellow card/red card system would go far to make it significantly less attractive to try and injure a player on the opposing team.
Under soccer rules a yellow card is awarded against a violent attack where a player is hit unnecessarily by a player on the opposing team. For example, in a typical soccer play if an opposing player slides feet first and strikes the other player in order to prevent the other player from getting the ball, he is likely to receive a penalty. In soccer the penalty is a yellow card. Two yellow cards in a game, or one especially violent hit, lead to a red card. When a player gets a red card he must immediately leave the game and cannot be replaced during the remainder of the game. He also is suspended from play the next week. The league can also impose longer suspensions.
Nothing like this happens in American football. The penalty for striking another player is fifteen yards. Even if the player is thrown out of the game, a truly rare event, he can be replaced -and unless the league itself votes a suspension or a fine (suspension being a much less likely outcome), physically harming the opposing player pays off for an aggressive team or player.
The league should receive some praise for trying to enforce rules against helmet to helmet hits and for particular egregious hits on so-called players who are “unprotected.” But with such weak penalties the hitting and maiming and conclusions continue and now we know, as if we didn’t, that the human price goes beyond an injury to an individual player. It affects everyone around him, and it can cause unnecessary suffering for many, not just one.
Technology won’t solve the problem, although it can help. Stronger rules, like adopting the soccer Red Card system, would be a far more effective deterrent against wanton violence. In fact, the game itself would vastly improve because instead of trying to injure an opposing player, skill would play a bigger role in the game making it more competitive and enjoyable to fans. Let’s not continue to turn American football into a Gladiator sport.