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NFL: heighten safety or hamper the game

Pittsburgh+Steelers+cornerback+Joe+Haden+%2821%29+leaves+the+game+after+a+first+half+injury+against+the+Indianapolis+Colts+Sunday%2C+Nov.+12%2C+2017%2C+at+Lucas+Oil+Stadium+in+Indianapolis.+The+Steelers+won%2C+20-17.+%28Sam+Riche%2FTNS%29
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (21) leaves the game after a first half injury against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Steelers won, 20-17. (Sam Riche/TNS)

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (21) leaves the game after a first half injury against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Steelers won, 20-17. (Sam Riche/TNS)

TNS

TNS

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden (21) leaves the game after a first half injury against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Steelers won, 20-17. (Sam Riche/TNS)

By Will Schulman | Columnist

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Getting into formation with teammates, you stare across the field at the quarterback’s eyes and hear him shout “Green 18” and “54’s the mike,” signaling players to move around the field. A few seconds later, a crisp “set…hike!” cuts through the noise — the game has begun.

Now you’re on the move down the field, when suddenly you see what might as well be a sentient refrigerator barreling straight at you. As you’re about to lead with your head and hit high — he’s got 60 pounds and six inches on you, so going for the mid-section isn’t going to work — you see that yellow flag in the back of your mind.

You know that 15-yard penalty will be costly, and you can practically hear coach chewing you out in practice tomorrow. So you get as low as you can go and hit him as hard as possible in the knees. He topples — torn ACL. He’s done for the season.

Far too many players in the National Football League know this scenario or a similar one all too well. In fact, injuries in the NFL have become so common that it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that this Sunday’s Super Bowl features two teams whose success could be in part due to their ability to suffer fewer injuries than their opponents.

The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots — two injury-stricken teams playing in the Super Bowl because of their relative lack of injuries. It’s a Super Bowl paradox. Football’s violence is part of the sport’s appeal, but the sport has become too injury-ridden.

Even when one problem is addressed, another one begins. Since the revelation surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the devastating disease caused by sustaining multiple concussions, the NFL now penalizes and fines players who deliver deliberate hits to the head.

This is a good thing, but now players are trained to hit low at the knees, resulting in more devastating knee injuries in an already dangerous sport.

Though critics — including President Donald Trumpclaim that past rule changes have made the sport soft, the league must keep making more changes. American football must evolve to become safer, because if it doesn’t it will face extinction.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine football, America’s game, fading into our past. A staggering 37 percent of American adults consider it to be their favorite sport, with basketball, 11 percent, and baseball, 9 percent, following far behind, according to a Gallup poll.

Seven out of the 10 most-watched television programs in 2017 were NFL games — so were 19 out of the 20 most watched television programs of all time.

Football is still king of the American sports world, but like all kings, its reign will one day come to end. The 21st century has been anything but kind to the image of professional football. We’ve heard stories about NFL players suffering debilitating cognitive symptoms — from confusion, to memory loss, to dementia, paranoia and suicide.

We’ve seen off-the-field issues like domestic violence, opiate addiction and even murder dominating the headlines.

Social issues also tarnish the league’s image — I wrote about the national anthem NFL debacle in October, a series of protests that upset many fans on both sides of the political spectrum.

And along with all this, the injuries pile up year after year.

Carson Wentz, the young star quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, tore his ACL in their week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams. What troubled me the most about this injury was that it occured on a play voided due to a penalty. That’s right — one of the emerging faces of football suffered a catastrophic knee injury on a play that didn’t even count.

And he wasn’t alone. Deshaun Watson, another young quarterback who was taking the league by storm, tore his ACL in practice this year.

It could be easy to chalk up the multitude of star-player injuries this year to bad luck — except these extensive injuries happen year after year.

The Eagles are built around their strong defensive line which has remained completely healthy, but the Patriots’ success starts and ends with their quarterback, Tom Brady, who suffered a hand injury during a Jan. 17 practice.

The Eagles and Patriots’ relative health is an anomaly when compared to other strong teams, like the Steelers’ — whose linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury that went beyond compromising the team and shook the national audience to its core.  

But the league can do more than just adjust their rules to keep players healthy.

The first step would be to eliminate the kickoff, as Giants owner John Mara suggested. The kickoff is the most dangerous play in football, as players start on the opposite ends of the field, before entering a full sprint. This increases the collision force, resulting in more plentiful and more severe injuries.

Equipment can also be improved. Researchers at UCLA are working on a helmet that would reduce head injuries and measure collision impact. A study by the Academy of General Dentistry showed custom-made mouthguards reduce concussion risk substantially. It’s a travesty that the NFL has not made them mandatory.

Offensive and defensive linemen often wear bulky knee braces. If we required these for all players, the game would inevitably lose some of its speed, but it would also reduce the number of knee injuries.

The NFL has a concussion protocol, but breeches of this protocol are a regular occurence —

and it needs to change. The NFL needs heavily enforced concussion protocol and severe penalties for teams that violate them.

Change is always difficult. Improving helmets will be expensive, forcing players to wear custom mouth guards and knee braces will be met with resistance and properly enforcing concussion protocol will lead to healthy players missing playing time.

But it’s obvious if the NFL doesn’t make some serious changes like this soon, it could face a serious demise. And as a die-hard football fan, I’ll take slightly less violence and excitement over no football any Sunday.

Will primarily writes about politics and sports for The Pitt News. Write to Will at whs21@pitt.edu

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NFL: heighten safety or hamper the game