It is as scary a sight as there is in sports, but it is also one of the most exciting. Since its existence, big hits have defined the American sport of football; separating the men from the boys and the contenders from the pretenders. Yet how much is too much? Such is the question that the NFL has been trying to answer all season long.
In Sunday’s matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles, Colts wide receiver Austin Collie became the latest victim of the sport’s most vicious play. With the second quarter coming to a close and Indianapolis driving, Collie caught a pass from Peyton Manning across the middle of the field and was almost immediately sandwiched between two Eagles defenders. The ball came loose in an apparent fumble and the Eagles’ Asante Samuel scooped it up with running room ahead. Before Samuel could make any headway the play was called dead, an unnecessary roughness flag was thrown and Collie was left lying lifeless on the turf. The ensuing minutes were chaos as Eagles players frantically pleaded against the referees’ decision to call the play dead, Colts players solemnly gathered around their fallen teammate, and CBS commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms argued over the legitimacy of the ruling while speculating at what time Collie had lost consciousness.
The above may seem overwhelming at the least (don’t worry, Collie suffered only a concussion), –– notice how “only a concussion” is now an acceptable phrase in football journalism — but it is as common an occurrence as the two-minute warning in professional football today. While the hit appeared to be legal –– as is evidenced by the NFL not choosing to fine Eagles safety Kurt Coleman after the game –– the debate rages on about whether the sport’s entertainment value is superceding its safety. Although loudmouth superstars such as Jerome Harrison and iconic TV personalities like Tedy Bruschi have had no trouble in providing their opinions on the topic –– be it through spoken words or threat of retirement –– other players’ voices have gone overlooked. Sometimes it is best to listen to a more down-to-Earth source when discussing something so subjective, which is why Cornell football players Brian Gee, Ben Heller and Luke Tasker have decided to provide their own insight on the issue.
As can be assumed, Gee and Heller –– a freshman and a senior both playing the safety position –– have varying opinions on the prevalence of helmet-to-helmet hits in the game today compared to Tasker, a sophomore wide receiver. One thing they do seem to agree on is the delicate and ambiguous nature of the issue and the importance of dealing with it.
“Obviously it’s an important issue because the head is something that needs to be taken very seriously,” Gee said. “It’s not like a shoulder or a knee or something, you only have one [head] and it’s clearly irreplaceable.”
So, what do the three members of the Red think should be done to prevent more serious consequences than those suffered by Collie on Sunday?
“It’s a difficult situation because players are getting hurt so attention has to be given to it,” Tasker said. “On a second note though, you can’t completely take helmet-to-helmet contact out of the league. That’s the way players have been taught to block and tackle for years, that’s the only way they know how to do it.”
As a wide receiver, Tasker has the dangerous job of journeying beyond enemy lines unprotected while trying to catch a pass and he believes that a fine line has to be established so that players in his shoes are warranted some sort of protection. Rule change or not though, the sophomore wideout understands the nature of the game and accepts the consequences before taking the field.
“[Running across the middle] is a skill, or a decision rather, that a receiver has to make,” Tasker said. “You have to go in there and you have to decide that you’re going to catch the ball no matter what happens. Chances are you’re going to take a big hit and that’s the way it is. There are those big, hard hits that are going to hurt a little bit though, and then there are dangerous hits.”
Heller, meanwhile, feels that a change to the NCAA rulebook could serve as a possible solution to remove such dangerous hits from play at both the collegiate and professional level.
“I feel like a new rule would probably help college football in that coaches would try to teach different tackling techniques, to lean with the shoulder more,” he said. “Obviously, college is the gateway to the NFL. We want to be able to do it the right way by the time we get to the NFL.”
Gee, on the other hand, thinks the rules are already too stern, particularly in the NFL.
“Football is a violent game, it’s always been a violent game,” he said. “Honestly I think the NFL’s rules are way too strict. You play the game expecting to get hit and expecting to hit. Obviously health is the number one issue, but these rules are taking away one of most exciting and biggest reasons to play football, which is hitting people. If you can’t do that, then I feel like you’re taking a big component out of the game.”
Despite differing on their interpretation of the rules, the two defensive players share a similar view in how violators to the rules should be treated.
“I think that the only time its necessary to throw a flag or fine a player or suspend a player is if there is no doubt that he was intentionally trying to take someone’s head off,” Gee said. “Otherwise it’s just a big hit and you should clap for the defense and pray and hope that the receiver is ok.”
Heller added that oftentimes the helmet-to-helmet hits are more a result of the offensive player changing direction and the defensive player not responding in time, stating that in instances such as this, fines and suspensions are not a proper solution.
So why are these big hits just now coming to light?
“There is so much more that they are discovering about the long-term impact of concussions now that I feel like if they discovered it twenty years ago, the emphasis would have been on it twenty years ago,” Heller said.
But the issue’s roots go far beyond recent accomplishments in head trauma research. They reside in the changing nature of the sport and the changing instincts of its participants.
“Sometimes it’s not intentional; you’re just running full speed and you just happen to hit them in the head,” Heller said. “But there’s also times when you tend to lower your head. It’s kind of a natural way to go into someone, you know, head first.”
With two weeks left in the Ivy League season and an entire second half of NFL football yet to be played, here’s to hoping that players start to use their heads before tackling opponents instead of unleashing them during the hit.