Football at the Crossroads
In the late 1960’s an orthopedic doctor, concerned about the health of his football playing sons, wrote his observations. Dr. O. Charles Olsen’s book, “The Prevention of Football Injuries,” made note of the adverse and pronounced effects of “spearing” or head gear to chest tackling. While this technique was effective and caught on quickly, the number of deaths and severe injuries rose as a rapid level never before witnessed before in football.
Dr. Olsen concluded that energy equaled one half of the mass times velocity squared. (e=1/2m x v squared). The bigger, stronger, faster players were creating a force that couldn’t withstand head gear to head gear, or head gear to knee contact.
The consolidation of schools eliminated many of the smaller players. African American footballers were added to the talent pool, along with weight programs, better diets, and better coaching, and in many instances steroids. Tremendous contact ensued. And, while efforts have been made to control this violent hitting, football is at a crossroads.
The question of the long term effects of head contacts have forced the questions of (1) are we dealing with concussions properly,(2) are we legally liable if we turn our backs on the problem (3) are the linemen more vulnerable than we thought and (4) can you “take the head out of football?” and on and on. These questions have been around. Perhaps no one has done more research than UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Carl Blyth and Dr. Fred Mueller have done yeoman’s work in an attempt to protect our young players. This effort was begun a long time ago. Dr. Mueller still pursues the data at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Pro football features a real ballet each game day. The receivers and defensive backs are making plays that are at a new level of brilliance . Truly a work of physical, human art. At the same time Olsen’s theory of force is hardly better exemplified than when a receiver crosses the field and is hit by a defensive back. And, while a defensive back may be penalized for “head hunting”, he knows if he jars the ball loose, and or intimidates the receiver, his game rating goes up. While this risks tragic injury possibilities (his own included) is his job security a factor that urges him on?
The crossroads football faces include some other variables. The more violent the hitting, the more the injury. Yet the more violent the hitting the more market appeal the game experiences. Are we getting to the “gladiator” level of violence? And while college and professional football are in the crosshairs of violence, perhaps high school footballers are even more vulnerable. And here is why: The weak and small and slow are eliminated at the college level. But in many high schools, small players may face tremendous opponents. These guys hitting the “canon fodder” can create catastrophe.
“You can’t take the head out of football” might become “you must take the head out of football.” How to do this is the crossroads question. I fear the 2011 season will make this even more apparent. “I would let my son play football, but I would not encourage him to play football.” James Michener, Sports In America 1976.