Monday, April 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Can football exist without concussions?

In the wake of the Eagles' injuries and a new report on the death of former Penn player Owen Thomas, local college football coaches share their thoughts on the risk of injury from hard hits.

Can football exist without concussions?

Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion in last Sunday´s game against the Green Bay Packers. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion in last Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

There's been a lot of news this week about concussions in football, and in particular the impact brain injuries have had on football teams in our region.

By now, you've probably seen Mike Jensen and Bob Moran's report on the autopsy of former Penn football player Owen Thomas in Tuesday's Inquirer. There was also Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice's terrific column about how NFL players hide injuries in yesterday's Daily News. 

When Thomas' autopsy was published, a number of people asked me for my opinion on the report. I wasn't sure what to say at the time, but Justice's viewpoint really got me thinking.

Not long after reading that column, I went to Franklin Field for the weekly local college football coaches' luncheon. I figured it would be a good way to bring more voices into the conversation. By the time I had left 33rd Street, I felt like I had learned enough to be able to write something.

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So here's my view first, followed by the views of the coaches who were at yesterday's luncheon. I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments at the end.

I've never played football in any kind of organized way. I've probably put on a football helmet once or twice as a Halloween costume, but as far back as I can remember I've never put on a set of shoulder pads. The most football I've ever played is pickup games of touch or flag football with friends.

Like you, though, I'm a fan of the sport. We all know how big a role football plays in society, from high school games on Fridays to college games on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays and Mondays. When we aren't watching games, we're talking about them at the office or on Twitter or here on Philly.com.

So we all get plenty of exposure to the sport. And we know that if there is one fundamental principle of how football is played, it is this: you hit hard, and you get hit. When one play ends, you get right back up and get ready for the next one.

There is a certain glory in that mentality, especially among defensive players. Much of the time, quarterbacks and wide receivers get the biggest headlines. So do running backs, at least in cities whose NFL teams' coaches understand how to use them effectively.

(In case Andy Reid is wondering, I'm not naming anyone specific. I'm just saying.)

But we also lavish praise on defenses. We revel in big hits by safeties on wide receivers. We mimic the best sack celebrations performed by defensive linemen.

Every so often, though, we witness the kinds of events that we've seen this week. On Sunday, Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley was hit, went down, got back up, and fell over again before the medical staff could attend to him. It was clear right away that Bradley had suffered a concussion.

Not long before Bradley's injury, quarterback Kevin Kolb was slammed to the Lincoln Financial Field turf, and also suffered a concussion. But both players, as well their coaches, were determined to get the duo back on to the field. So after a quick examination, Bradley and Kolb returned to the fray during the second quarter. Only at halftime were they officially removed from the game.

It apparently did not occur to anyone associated with the Eagles at the time that they may have violated NFL rules by allowing Bradley and Kolb to keep playing. While I will defer to my Philly.com colleague Sheil Kapadia on matters relating to NFL rules, allow me to stick my neck out there and make an assertion about what we saw:

The rules aren't always of paramount importance when there's a sporting event to win.

That statement doesn't apply to any specific person or organization, or even specific sport (and this time I mean it). It is more a reflection on the psychology of sport as a whole, though it seems at times to be especially prevalent in football. And it may well have serious consequences.

It is terrifying to think that the depression which led Owen Thomas to take his own life may have been caused in some form by hits taken and delivered while playing football. Even scarier is the possibility that countless football players whose names we'll never know might suffer the same fate.

As was noted in yesterday's Inquirer, Boston University researcher Robert Stern has concluded that more than 20 deceased NFL players, including former Eagles star Andre Waters, suffered from the same illiness as Thomas. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy may sound like a complicated phrase, but it has a simple cause: repeated blows to the head.

Now comes the real question: do we need to change the way football is played? There may not be an easy answer. If we are willing to live with the physical and psychological costs that the sport incurs, then we can go right ahead as things are. But if not, then society has a lot of thinking to do.

There were five coaches at yesterday's luncheon, and I asked them all for their views. Let's start with Penn coach Al Bagnoli, who's been right in the middle of this maelstrom.

"I think we've got to be careful about what we draw in terms of conclusions until we get a comprehensive look at everything, but obviously it's an issue with everybody from the NFL down," Bagnoli said. "They're leading the charge, and I think colleges, and high schools, and Pop Warner are trying to folow suit."

Villanova coach Andy Talley has seen plenty of big hits in his decades in charge on the Main Line. He told me that his team, like many others, doesn't hit in practice after the preseason. Talley and his assistants also make sure to drill their players on proper tackling form.

"We're always talking about having your face up," he said. "Most of the things happen when your head comes down."

Talley admitted, though, that "when those bodies are flying, it's pretty hard to keep your head out of there."

Delaware Valley coach Jim Clements oversees one of the top programs in Division III. Yet as with many other programs at that level, Clements has financial constraints when it comes to making sure his team has the safest equipment.

"I believe that helmets that are out there are state of the art," Clements said. "Does everyone have state of the art equipment? No, but it's just a part of the game and athletics in general. Obviously you've got to take every single step necessary to make sure that the safety of our players is first and foremost."

Ursinus coach Pete Gallagher got a $5,500 boost in his equipment budget this year to get new helmets.

"I think the biggest responsibility for anybody is to make sure that you've got the right head gear on your kids, and then teach them how to block and tackle," Gallagher said. "A lot of the concussions you see don't come from direct hits. A lot of the concussions you see come from [side hits to] the jaw area, and I think with the new headgear that's available, that's a big deal."

New Widener coach Isaac Collins played running back at another Division III school, the University of Rochester. He admitted that he suffered his fair share of concussions during his playing career.

"When I played, smelling salt was the cure for a concussion," Collins quipped.

Collins noted how rules about head-to-head hits have changed in recent years, in part because of increased public understanding of brain injuries. Now a player who forces a head-to-head collision can be ejected from a game. Collins said he hopes that will help change players' mentalities.

"I think our kids understand that it's a safety issue for them first, but it's also going to penalize your team," he said. "So the big hit, leading with your head, then jumping up and celebrating, could get you ejected or could get you injured."

Now I turn to you all, and ask for your views. Is there an inherent conflict between the nature of football and our dislike of injury? To put things even more bluntly, is it an expresssion of weakness of character in some form if a person is concerned about the damage done by phyiscal violence in football?

We can say that changes need to be made, or we can say that serious injuries are just a part of the sport's nature. Either way, there are significant consequences. Not just for the sport, but potentially for our society as a whole.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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