The death this week of the pro football player nicknamed “The Assassin” for his brutal tackles, including one that crippled an opponent in 1978, is a poignant reminder that the dangers of the game as played in the National Football League go back decades. Jack Tatum, 61, raised in North Jersey, once said he was “paid to hit, the harder the better” — and never with more devastating results than his hit on New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley, who was left a quadriplegic. It’s a troubling fact that the long-retired Tatum likely would be just as welcome in today’s NFL as he was when playing for the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s.
Even at the collegiate level, Tatum’s style of play is emulated. His alma mater, Ohio State, still singles out aggressive players with its Jack Tatum Hit of the Week Award. So it’s significant that Tatum’s death happens to coincide with news that the NFL, following years of denial, finally is getting around to acknowledging the long-term hazards of head-butting and high-velocity collisions that make the ESPN highlights.
Having decreed last season that players suffering concussions must be cleared for play by an independent neurologist, the league now plans to issue a blunt and unequivocal warning to players about such brain injuries. Posters will hang in locker rooms warning of lifelong disabling injuries from repeated concussions, including memory loss, depression, and the early onset of dementia.
With a growing number of retired players reporting such health problems, NFL officials have come under pressure from players, their families, and even members of Congress to take steps to limit head injuries. Yet it’s only now that the league is conceding that the long-term health risks are real, having long tried to discredit those reports. Will the posters alone “help make our game safer,” as the signs say? Merely urging NFL players — and younger athletes, by example — to “use your head, don’t lead with it,” isn’t likely to change a sports culture that prizes aggressive play. That will require changing the rules of the game, specifically to make head-to-head contact far less likely.
League officials are working on such rule changes. Are they serious, though? If they merely bump up penalties and fines for rough play, then the answer’s no. Similarly, the endless search for supposedly safer helmets may only encourage more hard-hitting play with the illusion that such equipment can prevent concussions. Rule changes that make the game safer should be part of the NFL’s calculus — unless, that is, league officials still secretly think that more “Assassins” would be good for football’s future.