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Woodrow Wilson once said that football "develops more moral qualities than any other game of athletics." The game has always been a laboratory for traits like teamwork, discipline and perseverance. If it is to remain a metaphor for American exceptionalism, however, we can't let it leave so many victims in its wake. Here's a game plan to lessen the pain:
1. Change the rules. The NFL's competition committee seems ready to move on player-safety fixes. "You start with the premise that nothing is off the table," says Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, a co-chairman of the committee. This is crucial, as NFL changes will not only protect athletes who suit up on Sunday; they will also trickle down to football's lower levels, reducing injury risk for all.
So go ahead and ditch the three-point stance for linemen, except perhaps for very-short-yardage situations. "You wouldn't be firing out, I guess," says New York Jets guard Alan Faneca, initially skeptical when asked his thoughts about this change. "I'd buy that." Starting linemen upright in a "two-point" stance two feet, no hands on the ground would result in more blocking with the arms and hands.
The goal is to prohibit head games. "The No. 1 thing: take the purposeful helmet hit out of football, for both blocking and tackling," says Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the country's premier concussion experts and a co-founder of Sports Legacy Institute. That goes for running backs as well. Too often, they make a conscious decision to lower their head into a defender, hoping the forward lean will give them an extra yard. That defender's natural reaction? Go head-on as well. What if running backs weren't allowed to intentionally lead headfirst? The NFL is at least considering such a rule. "What concerns me is the runners," says McKay. "A lot of those hits are voluntary, where a player ducks his head and is in a position to deliver a blow ... that's something we have to look at. Because you see it more today than you did 20 years ago."
Hall of Fame coach and legendary broadcaster John Madden, whom NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed to help solve the concussion problem, has spent his first year out of the booth developing smart reforms. He points out that today's players wear less padding than they did in the past, either to increase their speed or for fashion appeal. "So the helmet becomes the only protected part of your body," he argues. Madden suggests that if players were required to wear more padding, they'd be less likely to consider their helmet a safe weapon.
It's time to think even more radically. How about removing an offensive lineman from the equation? Linemen are more likely to butt heads on every play, so simple math dictates that this move would reduce overall head trauma. Why not penalize egregious head hits with not only a 15-yard penalty for the guilty player but a stint on the sideline too? Let's give football a penalty box.
2. Change the equipment and training. When people start discussing fixes for football, the talk inevitably begins with helmets: Is there a design that is more likely to prevent concussions? There have been some impressive innovations. The Riddell Revolution Speed embeds sensors that can record the impact of collisions. Another company, Xenith, markets a model with shock absorbers within the helmet. These devices, shaped like hockey pucks, are supposed to soften the impact of blows to the head. The company said it surveyed 540 players using the helmet and found reports of only three concussions.
But even Vin Ferrara, the former Harvard quarterback who founded Xenith in 2004, warns against putting too much faith in helmet technology. "You will never hear me say that protection is more than half the battle," he says. "The most effective thing is not getting hit in the first place."
On that point, football players could probably benefit from fewer full-contact practices. "There's so many damn drills," says Cantu. "You don't need all this one-on-one, helmet-on-helmet macho stuff." The NFL can easily take the lead on this commonsense solution. Right now, contact continues year-round at assorted training camps. "We're looking at off-season programs that are probably too long," says Madden. At some point, the cost of constant blows to the head far outweighs any competitive benefit.
3. Change youth football. Chris Nowinski is a former Harvard defensive tackle whose pro-wrestling career he didn't want to sit in a cubicle was derailed by concussions. He has since emerged as one of the country's most prominent advocates for football reform and has written a book, Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis. To illustrate his points, he pulls up a YouTube clip titled "Big Football Hit Helmet to Helmet." In a drill supervised by the coaches, two 8-year-olds charge toward each other, heads down, as a woman yells, "Go! Go!" The tiny helmets collide pop! After one kid gets knocked back to the ground, you can hear his whimpers. "Who the hell is teaching this?" asks Nowinski.
Follow Sean Gregory on Twitter @seanmgregory.