Just a quick “heads up”

Jake Eisenberg, Sports Editor

It’s funny looking back on how athletic games have evolved from their roots in sandlots and local YMCA’s to the fields and courts we know today.  We see how the rules change, the uniforms change, the players change, and the strategy, too.  In fact, the only thing constant about different sports over periods of time is change.

Another facet that has morphed is attention to player safety, attained through better medical technology and understanding of injuries.

President Obama has always made his sports opinions heard, and has occasionally suggested changes, but the history of presidential activism in the sports sphere stretches back to Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1905, then-President Roosevelt had a meeting with Walter Camp, the President of Harvard, and representatives from Yale and Princeton, to discuss the game that had seen 18 college and amateur players die that year – football.   This was prior to the formation of the NFL, when the college level of the game was premier.  The changes enacted, including the institution of the forward pass, changed the game into the one we know today.

In an interview with The New Republic magazine, Mr. Obama told reporters, “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

A lot of this uncertainty stems from the rise of concussions in the sport, and the recent reports of latent brain damage due to overexposure to the vicious hits taken repeatedly by some of today’s players.  The late Junior Seau committed suicide, and his brain showed the same chronic brain damage observed in dozens of other deceased former players.  Seau also suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia, memory loss and depression.

At the inception of the game, helmets and pads were seemingly nonexistent, and optional.  Leather helmets then made the cut, followed by the helmets we know today, made with advanced materials and including facemasks.  Some helmets today even have extra padding to prevent concussions.

But it’s not just the uniforms and the rules; the players have changed too.  They are bigger, stronger, and faster, and, as a result, hit harder.

It all boils down to the way that players tackle.  They lead with their head (helmet), and collide with the other players, especially dangerous when the latter is defenseless.  Now, youth coaches are told to teach tackling “Heads Up.” This is similar to throwing simultaneous uppercut punches while running at punching bag, while trying to keep your chin parallel to the ground.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has taken a stand against these types of hits, increasing fines to levels that rival the mortgage of your house.  Other politicians, such as New York State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, are beginning to propose legislation to prohibit kids under the age of 11 from playing tackle football, citing developmental complications.  Currently, there are Pop Warner leagues starting at the age of five.

However, these are the two solutions that won’t solve anything.  You can’t just ask players to pay more and more; it’s like asking Michael Jordan to give up a pair of shoes every time the Charlotte Bobcats lose.  And you cannot tell kids not to play, plain and simple.  The real solution: make some changes to the rules that protect the players.  Yes, it may reduce some of the hard hitting happenings and some of the excitement, but it’s a sacrifice that we, and hopefully the players, will have to live with a bit longer.

So, let’s tackle player safety – the right way.