Dr. Mayer Interviewed in New York Times Article on Big Hits in NFL GamesPosted by BestPractices on November 24 2010
Big Hits, No Flags
By ALAN SCHWARZ
New York Times
Published: November 23, 2010
One player was tackled square in the face with the helmet of an onrushing opponent. Another, fighting for one last yard, took a polyurethane bash to the head. Still another player spent 10 minutes mostly motionless among dozens of praying players before medics carried him away on a stretcher after a helmet-to-helmet hit.
The Eagles’ Ellis Hobbs was motionless for 10 minutes after a hit on a kickoff against the Giants.
The Eagles’ Ellis Hobbs was motionless for 10 minutes after a hit on a kickoff against the Giants, then left the field on a stretcher.
No flags were thrown. And after watching multiple replays of each collision in Sunday’s Giants-Eagles game at N.F.L. offices on Monday, Ray Anderson, the league’s tackling disciplinarian, calmly confirmed that each play was legal. For now, perhaps.
“We will continue to review hits to the head, including helmet-to-helmet hits, that are currently legal to determine whether more changes should be made,” he said. “We are constantly looking for ways to increase player safety. Nothing is off the table.”
Indeed, despite the league’s controversial threats last month to suspend players for helmet-to-helmet tackles, and four years into revelations of the short- and long-term consequences of football brain trauma, almost every head-on-head collision remains not just condoned but also part of the sport. N.F.L. rules forbid such hits essentially against only quarterbacks or defenseless players, like a receiver making a catch; all others are fair game.
But the N.F.L.’s recent movement toward eliminating particularly dangerous tackles suggests that some of the collisions like those seen Sunday night could be forbidden as early as next season. Given how youth and high school football tend to follow the N.F.L.’s lead, the changes could affect more than just professionals.
“People in the league feel it coming and see it coming,” said Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons and co-chairman of the league’s competition committee, which handles rules changes. He added, “I think the league appreciates the idea that it needs to be a leader in this area.”
Promising to consider change is far easier than enacting it, but the N.F.L. has recently established momentum toward limiting shots to the head, which for years have been enforced with the vigilance of jaywalking laws.
In 2009, teams returning kickoffs could no longer form a wedge of more than two blockers, and protection for defenseless receivers was expanded from helmet-to-helmet hits to those delivered to the head or neck area by the defender’s helmet, forearm or shoulder. This season, receivers who have just made a catch — rather than only attempting to make one — are protected.
That change outlawed hits like the shockingly violent one delivered by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ryan Clark against the Baltimore Ravens’ Willis McGahee in the A.F.C. championship game two years ago, when Clark’s full-speed, helmet-to-helmet launch — which left McGahee unconscious and Clark all but — was perfectly legal because it came a split-second after McGahee caught the ball and stepped forward.
Clark acknowledged, “I probably could have stopped and waited and tried to tackle him, but it’s sad to say I think I closed my eyes and I was praying that I’d wake up when I hit the ground.”
Rule changes must be bargained with the players union, so Commissioner Roger Goodell termed his recent suspension edict a clarification of punishment rather than a rules update.
Responding to Anderson’s comments on Tuesday, Dr. Thom Mayer, the union’s medical director, questioned not only the feasibility of further changes but also the sincerity of a league that until recently played down the long-term effects of concussions — and is also trying to expand the season to 18 games from 16.
“Blaming the players is not appropriate,” Mayer said. “We’ve created this violent sport that’s nearly a $9 billion business. We’re trying to make sure that players know the rules but also participate in the deliberations to see what’s doable and not doable, while still maintaining the integrity of the game.”
Mayer added: “Anything that can be done to improve the safety of our players really should be done, short of stopping playing the game. That’s the $64,000 question.”
As Anderson watched replays of several legal hits from the Eagles-Giants game, he indicated that none were specifically subject to review next spring. (“Those are football plays,” he cautioned.) But, taken together, they communicated room for reform.
As the Giants’ Will Blackmon awkwardly tried to pick up a bouncing punt, Moise Fokou ran into him full stride, face mask to face mask.
Corralled by some Eagles but fighting for extra yards, Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw crouched slightly before Keenan Clayton crashed into his head helmet-first.
On the kickoff return that left him face-down for 10 minutes and evoked fears of paralysis, the Eagles’ Ellis Hobbs braced for impact by tilting the crown of his head toward the oncoming defenders. Such a maneuver, while somewhat instinctual, is the most common cause of football spine fractures. (Hobbs sustained a less serious disk injury from which he will not return this season.)
The Steelers’ Ryan Clark was stunned by his helmet-to-helmet hit on the Ravens’ Willis McGahee in the 2009 A.F.C. championship game.
L.S.U.’s Tyrann Mathieu (14) was penalized for using his helmet to hit Mississippi’s Korvic Neat.
While jumping to catch a pass, the Giants’ Mario Manningham was slammed in the head by the flailing arms of defender Quintin Mikell. Mikell was penalized for pass interference, not contact to the head.
These plays also probably would not have drawn flags at football’s younger levels, where the rules appear slightly stronger but are subject to wide interpretation. USA Football, whose rulebook is used by Pop Warner and other leagues for players age 6 to 14, prohibits a defender from “initiating contact with the helmet,” although in practice almost all seemingly accidental or nonflagrant instances go unflagged. High school rules are similarly phrased and enforced.
This month, following the N.F.L.’s lead, USA Football strengthened its rules against defenseless receivers — but runners like the Giants’ Bradshaw or the Eagles’ Hobbs remain relatively unprotected.
Said the USA Football spokesman Steve Alic, “Ultimately, we want coaches to teach to play the game lower.”
Some plays Sunday night remained encouraging. When the Eagles’ Asante Samuel led with his helmet into the chin of the defenseless Giants receiver Derek Hagan, officials threw a flag they might not have thrown two months ago. Later, with a chance to deliver a devastating — and unless too high, legal — hit on Eagles receiver Jason Avant, the Giants’ Corey Webster held up at the last second and merely touched Avant down instead.
Watching with Anderson at N.F.L. headquarters, Merton Hanks, the former All-Pro defensive back and one of Anderson’s lieutenants, said that play symbolized the intent of current, and perhaps future, rules changes.
“He’s in between deciding to deliver a blow, and given the time of the game, score 17-16, he doesn’t want to risk a penalty,” Hanks said. “You always want the defender to be mindful that you’re in the area — that he’s going to pay a physical price for going for the football. But it was the smart play.”
There are no upcoming speaking engagements.