October 20, 2010
Concussions have been a prominent topic in the CFL this year, from their impact on players like Cory Boyd to their potential mental health risks to new helmet models that might be able to reduce them. They're a rising hot topic in football as a whole, though, with the NCAA focusing on reducing the amount of blows to the head and the NFL handing out fines and changing the rules in reaction to a spate of dangerous hits last weekend.
Dan Ralph and some of his colleagues at The Canadian Press came out with a detailed feature on concussions in the CFL today, and there's a lot in there to discuss. One of the important elements around concussions is just what rules are in place around hits, and the CP piece has a good look at that:
"NFL rules stipulate any contact to a player's head - with a helmet, shoulder or forearm - is illegal.
Under CFL rules, using a helmet to butt, ram or spear an opponent is illegal, as is any blow above a passer's shoulders. Chief operating officer Michael Copeland says the process is in place for the league to penalize a player for any action deemed to be outside 'an acceptable football play.'
‘We do have procedures in place,' he said. ‘We are ready should it happen.'
There are a couple key issues in there. First, it's positive that the CFL-unlike the NFL-penalizes certain types of hits where you lead with the head regardless of where you hit the opponent. Helmets are not just a protective device, but also a weapon, and one that can backfire; there are plenty of players who have seriously hurt opponents by leading with their head, but many have also injured themselves in the process. However, the "butt, ram or spear" language is somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. That doesn't make it particularly clear what types of head-first heads are acceptable and which ones are not.
On the subject of where you're allowed to hit players, the NFL has the stronger rule in my mind. Making head shots illegal regardless of how you deliver them is a much better idea than only banning head shots against quarterbacks. Yes, quarterbacks take some of the worst hits, and injuries to them are usually a tougher blow to their team, but that doesn't mean that receivers and running backs are expendable. Concussion rules should be about the people involved, not what position they happen to play.
Copeland's comments about procedures are somewhat reassuring, but only somewhat. It's good to know that the CFL has a plan in mind in case there is a dangerous hit that goes outside the realms of what's acceptable in football. It's more troubling not to know exactly how those realms are defined, and exactly what procedures are in place. The case-by-case approach the CFL appears to favour does have benefits, as it allows all the factors involved in a situation to be considered more fully than a hard-and-fast rule, but it has the drawbacks of reducing transparency and not offering a deterrent. Players are more likely to be careful about how they hit others if specific rules and penalties are laid out, and a congruent approach makes it fair for all players and teams involved.
Another element of that piece that should be discussed is just why concussions get less attention in the CFL. B.C. cornerback Korey Banks (pictured above laying a hit on Winnipeg's Steven Jyles on Oct. 2) attributes part of that to the bigger, wider field and the (generally) smaller players, and both are excellent reasons. The CFL hasn't seen anywhere near the (at least) 46 concussions Deadspin calculated have occurred in the NFL so far this season, and likely as a result, it hasn't seen anywhere near the same level of media scrutiny. However, concussions are still prevalent in the CFL, and when you consider that the league features one-quarter of the number of teams the NFL does (eight versus 32), it's clear that concussions should be a major issue here as well.
The reactions the CP reporters got from CFL players were understandably mixed. Offensive players like Ben Cahoon, Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris were more in favour of the CFL bringing in stricter rules, with Cahoon in particular saying he'd like to see all helmet-to-helmet heads banned. Defensive players like Dwight Anderson, Davis Sanchez and Banks saw the point, but were more concerned about having their ability to do their job compromised. That's been the pattern with many of the concussion stories over the years, with offensive players concerned about the hits they take and defensive players lobbying for the ability to continue to deliver such hits.
However, that's a bit short-sighted in my mind. Defensive players get head injuries too, and they often get them by leading with their head. Helmet-to-helmet collisions can impact both sides; Atlanta Falcons' cornerback Dunta Robinson's hit on the Eagles' DeSean Jackson Sunday earned him a fine, but it also concussed both players. It's not just the recipient that gets hurt in these hits, and there are plenty of ways to deliver a big hit without giving yourself or the other player a concussion. Unfortunately, as Yahoo!'s Jason Cole explored today, coaches often value big, dangerous hits, providing extra impetus for defensive players to go for the big shot.
Even when concussion-causing hits don't hurt the defensive player who delivered them physically, they can still have an effect on said player. Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun has a great piece on B.C. Lions' safety David Hyland, whose hit in Saturday's game at Empire Field gave Edmonton receiver Kelly Campbell (pictured at right taking a big hit from Sanchez in July) a concussion. It's an excellent read overall, but the key part may be Hyland's reaction, which is certainly a reasonably atypical one for a hard-hitting football player:
"B.C. Lions safety David Hyland, who administered the hit to Campbell, just before half-time, doesn't want to think too much about it, because if he obsesses on the prospect of traumatic brain injury he probably couldn't function on the football field.
This is not to suggest that Hyland is an uncaring individual. Far from it.
Indeed, after he laid out Campbell with a devastating, but clean hit delivered well within the rules, Hyland went to the Lions bench, sat down and prayed. Campbell didn't return and was diagnosed with a concussion.
‘I was just praying for his safety,' says Hyland, described by his coach, Wally Buono, as a deeply ‘spiritual' player. "You like delivering those big hits. But you never want to end somebody's career. This is such a precious game. And we have such precious bodies. I never want it to end for anybody. I looked for him after the game but I didn't see him. I hear he has a concussion. That's unfortunate."
Unfortunately, Hyland's reaction is far more of the exception than the norm. More typical are comments from players like the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher, who said "It's freaking football. There are going to be big hits. I don't understand how they can do this after one weekend of hitting. And I can't understand how they can suspend us for it. I think it's a bunch of bull." Football's full of players like the Steelers' James Harrison, who said "I try to hurt people" and then threatened to retire after being fined.
I don't think we can necessarily blame those players for thinking that way, as the mythology of football has always been about tough warriors taking each other out with big hits. There's a reason that NFL players like Mean Joe Greene, Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus and CFL players like Dan Kepley and Dale Potter have become some of the sport's biggest heroes and were praised for their punishing physical play. Big hits are fun to watch, so they're omnipresent on highlight reels.
With that in mind, it's understandable why so many players are focused on delivering pain to their opponents, and we certainly don't want to take physicality out of the game altogether. However, as Bruce Arthur wrote earlier this week, there's a fine line between physical play and dangerous, frightening play, and professional football may currently be on the wrong side of that. Stricter rules on head hits, a focus on expanding the teaching of proper tackling techniques and a mentality shift that saw players think more like Hyland than Harrison might all be steps back in the right direction.