Sports

Travis Johnson on Penn State football | Suspensions don’t solve concussion problem

Six words used to re-energize me unlike any Gatorade or Red Bull ever could.

There was nothing like coming home from a two-hour practice, muscles sore, bones aching, bridge of the nose scarred from a football helmet being jarred around, a feeling of accomplishment swelling in my gut for toughing through another grueling practice.

Click on the TV, put off a shower for now and park yourself on the couch.

Soon enough, those six words let you know it’s time.

Are you ready for some footbaaaall!? Hank Williams Jr. sang.

Maybe if Bocephus ever returns to Monday Night Football he’ll have to amend his famous lyrics.

Are you ready for some flag footbaaaall!?

The NFL game is being watered down by the season with rules designed to promote safety in a game that is inherently violent.

You can’t really hit a quarterback. Defensive backs can’t really cover receivers the way they should be able to. Spiking the football is akin to a middle finger in traffic. What was once gamesmanship that promoted a competitive atmosphere is now taunting. When did football have to become so politically correct?

The horse-collar tackle, illegal contact, the timeouts as a kicker approaches the football — “It’s good! Nope, they got the timeout in... ,” the never ending reviews conducted by the official who made the call in the first place — you see where I’m going. Wait, now a player can’t lower his head inside the tackle box in the NFL? That’s correct.

What’s next?

Ban hot dogs at games because someone may choke. After all, beef franks are among the most choked upon foods.

What’s scary?

It’s trickling down to college football.

The NCAA is going to have issues this fall. Not surprisingly, a controversial penalty introduced in the name of player safety will be at the center of living room arguments and fodder for radio and television talking heads. The governing body of college football has decided to make ejections mandatory for a play that happens all the time and will continue to happen.

Now, a player who delivers what is defined as a “targeted hit” by the rulebook automatically will be ejected. If it happens in the second half or overtime? He’s out for the first half of the next game.

Not one defensive player I talked to at Big Ten Media Days was warm to the mandate. Some were more polite about it, extolling the virtues of safety despite disagreeing with the change. Others were blunt. Most were worried about consistency.

Penn State safety Malcolm Willis sighed and acknowledged how tough it’s become to play his position within these narrowing rules. Nittany Lion linebacker Glenn Carson expressed outright fear that the game he loves will be completely different sooner rather than later with most hitting heavily regulated.

“I’m really worried about that,” Carson said. “The greatest part about playing football is the physicalness of it and that’s really why I got into it.”

Kudos to Nebraska’s Bo Pelini who was the first Big Ten coach to oppose the new ejection rule, saying it is going “overboard” on Wednesday.

Don’t think so? Just wait until one of your favorite team’s starters, Willis perhaps — a player who is not a head-hunter — gets thrown out after his helmet makes incidental contact with a wideout’s and that hit is determined to be targeted.

Look, I understand player safety is a key issue and coaches and players do, too. Concussion research is crucial. Despite the recent push to study brain injuries and their effects we still don’t know enough. We must. Hits that are against the rules and are particularly violent or seen by an official to be cheap, dirty or an attempt to deliberately injure an opponent should result in an ejection.

But, not every hit when helmets make contact are like that.

If the NHL gets something right it is its recent change of stance on blindside hits and boarding. If you skate into a player who is facing the boards and see his numbers, the onus is on the approaching player to ease up and not launch his foe into boards. But oftentimes this scenario unfolds much differently. Sometimes the player along the boards turns at the last second and puts himself in a vulnerable position. The checking player cannot possibly ease up as he has already committed to throwing the body check.

It would’ve been a perfect, clean hit less than a second before.

Big Ten director of officials Bill Carollo said Wednesday that players must learn to tackle correctly, not lead with their heads down. Hopefully this new consequence will encourage that, he said. But sometimes the onus isn’t on the tackler. It is on the ball carrier.

What happens when a safety lowers his level to make a tackle moments after a receiver has pulled in a pass and turned up field.

Freeze the play.

The safety has lowered himself in an attempt to deliver a clean hit below the shoulders. The receiver has caught the ball, turned and now is attempting to truck over the safety by countering, lowering his pads and exploding forward.

So who gets suspended? See the problem?

Determining whether a hit is worthy of an ejection has to be up to an officials discretion. Want to make something mandatory? Make it mandatory for all teams to have proper concussion protocols in place, a “quiet room” available in every home and visitor locker room for players with concussion symptoms to be thoroughly examined and a doctor who specializes in head injuries present at every game.

The problem with head injuries in football isn’t that they happen. The problem is players are allowed to return to games before they’re ready. It’s in the culture of the game. Players never want to come off the field and when they do, they want to go right back on.

You have to be a little crazy to pull on a football helmet. It’s a collision sport. Everyone gets hurt. You hope no one gets injured — there is a difference — but even so, it is going to happen. Players know it and are willing to take the risks.

“You’ve got to get those type of guys to play the game,” Carson said. “Guys that want to hit and are willing to take the risk of having a concussion and things like that. I definitely think they are taking away from the game.”

That game could be much different sooner rather than later as players’ fear of ejections and suspensions begin to saturate the game. Maybe Willis pulls up as a Michigan wide receiver cuts toward him, afraid he’ll miss playing time. What if Carson hesitates, worrying about a yellow flag rather than the Ohio State running back bearing down on him?

Are you ready for some two-hand touch footbaaaaall!?

It just doesn’t fire me up like the original.

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