Hit After Hit: Focus on Most Jarring Football Collisions Misses the Point
For my piece Friday about a recent federal study on football injuries, I asked a few of the biggest football fans in my life for their take. My youngest brother Andrew, now an English instructor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and editorial assistant at the Boswell Papers of Yale University, is a devoted Chicago Bears fan and one of the first people I knew who started talking about the concern that players’ brains were being injured. He raised an idea I never considered: as we have learned more about the science of sports-related injuries, some teams could use that science to inflict more damage. His guest post is below.
In a notorious closed-door speech given before a New Orleans Saints playoff game last winter, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ordered his players to "kill the head." "Kill the head and the body will die," he told them.
The phrase is often taken as advocacy for helmet-to-helmet hits. In part, it likely was. And such hits are actually still legal against ball-carriers like Frank Gore of the 49ers, whom the Saints played the next day and whose head Williams wanted "sideways."
Yet in advocating such hits, Williams would be advocating what has been unofficially declared Concussive Enemy Number One ever since the NFL, after denial and delay, began publicly addressing the issue of brain trauma a few years ago.
There is no Number Two. Eliminate these hits, we are told, and we’ll go a long way toward making the game safe.
This is the message we hear from announcers every Sunday, who now sublimate the delight they once got in celebrating a bell-ringer into either a denunciation of a "vicious" hit or praise for a "clean" one.
This focus on the right or wrong way to hit obscures the real frightening aspect of research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): a helmet-to-helmet hit might be the most dangerous way to hit a player, but any hit that makes the head stop short sends the brain crashing against the inside of the skull.
Football is not a beautiful spectacle marred by occasional moments of ugliness but a three-hour head trauma drama. In focusing on Williams’ lust for the types of injuries that appear on the ticker at the bottom of the screen, much of the media has ignored the mundane villainy of that speech, a game plan that is perverse precisely because it uses concussion research to ask players to injure with hits that aren’t the fare of the big hit highlight reel.
As Malcolm Gladwell noted in a New Yorker article that helped draw attention to football’s brain injury problem, brain deterioration is not the fruit of a specific set of big hits; "It’s lots of little hits too." Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who was a principal source of Gladwell’s story and the subject of a recent profile on Grantland.com, says the same: "the biggest problem isn’t the concussions, actually … It’s the sub-concussive hits that mount up every single time these guys line up."
But, so far, this piece of the injury research has not penetrated the everyday discourse regarding brain injuries in football. A number of sportswriters have reasonably noted that the Saints’ bounty system—rewarding players for injuries to the opposition—was just another manifestation of an "an ingrained culture of violence."
They write that players have always tried to injure opponents, even if not with attention, as Williams commanded, to specific body parts. The problem with the response from both those in high dudgeon and those questioning that dudgeon is that they each tend to focus on the headline hits. Football indeed is violent because of the big hits and variety of injuries they bring.
But, more simply, it’s violent because it’s a contact sport. An article by Jeanne Marie Laskas that appeared in GQ the same month as Gladwell’s joined him in noting that the most frequent sufferers of CTE are linemen. These players lead the league in little, not big hits.
In 2010, 21-year-old football player Owen Thomas took his own life, and research soon confirmed that his brain showed signs of CTE. The ESPN story on the subject began by framing it in familiar terms. It described CTE as the "disease caused by hard hits." It noted that Thomas’ brain was studied at Boston University, "which has done much of the work on the impact of big hits on football players."
This is how we talk about brain damage from football. Only further down in the article was it noted that, in fact, Thomas had no recorded concussion history. His mother was the first person in the story to suggest that smaller hits are a concern. (The Times story by Alan Schwarz does frame the event in terms of sub-concussive trauma.)
It is difficult to dissociate brain trauma from devastating impacts, but it seems Gregg Williams was focused on the finer details of concussion research—the little hits.
The most chilling statement in his pregame rant was not his proclamation, "Kill the head and the body will die," which could be taken metaphorically and was a Chiefs team motto in 2008, nor the instructions to go after Alex Smith’s head, Michael Crabtree’s ACL, or the head of the recently concussed Kyle Williams (a strategy the Giants used in beating the 49ers the next week). None of that is heartwarming, but for sheer malevolence, his most disturbing statement was this:
Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue. Touch and hit the head.
Little hits add up, and here Williams is using the leading edge of sports injury research to help his players injure more effectively. Jabs in the pile, little bumps as the players separate—the sorts of things that don’t draw a flag but can help push an already battered player out of his wits (Gladwell notes a case in which a relatively light elbow to the helmet sent one player over the edge.) One need not momentously "kill" to ravage the brain, just incessantly "affect" it.
The penalties on the Saints may well be a hypocritical attempt to localize a systemic problem. The same is true of any excoriation of a "bad" hit and its companion celebration of the "good." But those pointing out that vicious collisions are simply the nature of the game both overlook the frightening novelty of Williams’ instructions and perpetuate the idea that big hits are the only concern.
Michael Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center notes that "severe injuries are mild and mild injuries are severe," because the latter add up with little notice. Not only have players long been instructed to "put a hat on" the opponent, but to this day they also do so by happily head-butting their teammates after a big play. But if a coach were to ask his players to exercise caution in celebrations, how could he ever ask them to cast it aside and go across the middle? Or even play a down as an offensive lineman?
Penalty data does not definitively show Williams’ players made more illegal hits under his command. It might be worth reviewing the tape to determine whether any Saints acted on his more insidious orders: whether they did not set out just to "kill," as all football players do, but also to add a little more of that mild severity that occurs throughout the game and kills a little more softly, and slowly.
The NFL should try to reduce the number of high-speed collisions, but also seriously consider more sweeping changes: Have lineman start from a standing position; explore helmets designed to protect against concussions and not just skull fractures; maybe even make arm tackles the norm.
Each of those solutions offers its own problems, from questionable effectiveness to a radical alteration of the way the game is played. But just as concussions aren’t just about the big hits, football isn’t either.
It’s about the strategy, the precise movement of players, the perfect arc of a pass and the extended hand that stops it short of its goal. These things should survive so long as the players can.
Photo credit: Ed Yourdon via Flickr