Tackling the Big Hit Epidemic
In recent years, and more notably this season, football players have begun leading with their helmets as they tackle, using their own skulls as weapons against the incoming ball carrier and engaging in what’s referred to lightly as “the big hit.” Helmet-to-helmet contact has gone from a rare catastrophic anomaly to almost a common technique. Now, the sight of a concussed player being helped to the sideline has become a disturbingly ordinary sight. Although more is being done to curb these incidents, fundamental changes to how players prepare for games are necessary to achieve any significant results.
Fortunately, the NFL is making positive strides in this department, announcing that it will begin suspending players for flagrant hits, especially hits leading with the helmet or to the helmet. This new measure will take effect for Week 7 play, and while players might not immediately adapt to the more stringent penalties, the rationale is that players will be forced to alter their playing styles or risk being removed from games.
You would imagine that a five or ten thousand-dollar fine would not be taken lightly. But with a league median income of $770,000 per year, these damages are often viewed as a flash in the pan. An ambitious special teams player fighting for his job on a weekly basis may consider such a fine to be a necessary toll; making a big hit might cost him part of one week’s pay, but earn him a roster spot and a paycheck next week. Factor in suspensions rather than fines, however, and five or ten thousand becomes just shy of fifty thousand-dollars. That special teamer cannot afford to sacrifice a full game paycheck, nor can he afford to miss next week’s game if he wants to remain on the roster at all.
Still, more needs to be done. The league can say that the strengthened repercussions are the solution, and while they are certainly part of it, they are by no means all of it. The problem cannot be fully alleviated without addressing two other issues: the infrequency of penalties called on helmet-to-helmet contact and a pitiful lack of focus on tackling technique in training. Both issues are eggs on the league’s face—ones that it would like to pretend aren’t really there.
Both problems have easy fixes: the type of common sense solutions that make you angry that they were problematic in the first place. Players turn themselves into human missiles because refs rarely throw the flag when they do. Four hits doled out by James Harrison, Dunta Robinson, and Will Witherspoon in Week 6 alone resulted in an absurd five concussions (Robinson sustained a concussion himself on his hit on DeSean Jackson) and yet, no flags, despite the fact that all four hits involved helmet-to-helmet contact. In the past four years, only two players have been ejected from a game for flagrant hits. How do you limit the violence? Make it hurt the offending team, as the rules dictate. We know the referees know how to throw the flag, they do it plenty for excessive celebration. So refs, we’re looking at you, get your priorities straight.
As for tackling technique, let’s use baseball as a comparison. Imagine if catchers reported to spring training, but didn’t go into a crouch because the league was worried about knee injuries. Granted, this is actually a valid concern, as creaky knees afflict many catchers. But that doesn’t mean keeping them out of the crouch and then subjecting them to 95-mile per hour fastballs on Opening Day with no preparation is the right decision.
So when NFL teams practice in preseason without bringing players to the ground on tackles, how are players going to properly learn how to wrap up? Yes, injuries in training camp are a risk, but sacrificing the fundamentals is giving way to brutality. In the heat of the moment, players who have not practiced wrap-up tackles choose to rely on their raw athleticism, despite its violent consequences. It is a calculated risk, but practicing technique early can prevent injuries later.
The NFL cannot institute these suspensions and call it a day because we need something that is more than just sufficient to curb the carnage. This is bigger than just the NFL. Younger players have always and will always view the professionals as the standard of how they should play. So it should not have been a surprise when Eric Legrand, primarily a special teams player for Rutgers, led with his helmet to make a tackle and sustained a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It is pitiful, demoralizing, tragic event, but by no means unprecedented, and perhaps that is the saddest part of all.
Everyone is accountable for the state of football today. The players made the hits, the coaches and front offices encouraged it with playing time and fat contracts, the league championed it with their “NFL’s Greatest Hits” video, and the fans fueled the fire by bankrolling the league to make it the leviathan it is today. They are all responsible for changing the state of football today. The players deserve suspensions for flagrancy, the coaches should change their preparation tactics to better suit player safety, the league should acknowledge the active role it played in creating the culture it now must destroy, and the fans should accept that a less explosive game is a better game in the long run.
Fortunately, more people have started speaking out against the egregiousness of brutal NFL play. But the NFL needs to step up and do more than the bare minimum to solve this problem. If it doesn’t, the NFL may come to be seen less as a national pastime and more as an exercise in barbarism, plain and simple.