Will Concussions Change Football’s Future?

Most pros have been playing rough since grade school, but that doesn't mean the next generation can't learn a smarter game

Something didn’t feel right while I was watching the Eagles take on the Titans yesterday (other than the final score). It was the absence of the kid with the rocket cleats and Super-Glue mitts, wide receiver DeSean Jackson. The Birds missed him, badly. There are plenty of playmakers on the Eagles offense, but no one who’s a threat to score a touchdown at any time, from anywhere on the field.

That’s probably why Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson did his best to separate Jackson from the football a week ago. We know what happened after Robinson’s jack-hammer hit — both players sprawled on the turf, motionless. They somehow managed to walk off the field, though Jackson, who’s about the size of a clothes hanger, needed a lot of help to make it to the locker room. It wasn’t long ago that a takedown like Robinson’s would be celebrated — ESPN used to do a segment of nothing but brutal collisions in which all the hosts would yell “JACKED UP!” when someone got knocked silly. [SIGNUP]

Reacting in large part to Jackson’s K.O. and the concussion he suffered, this week the NFL announced it was cracking down on vicious hits, particularly those to the head and neck. The response from players was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Steelers linebacker James Harrison threatened to retire over the tougher rules. His teammate, Hines Ward, blamed quarterback Kevin Kolb for leading Jackson into dangerous territory. On WIP, former Eagle Ike Reese ripped the league for softening up the game he always played full-throttle. Even Jackson’s own teammates spoke out against the changes. “I can’t play like that,” said linebacker Ernie Sims. Tight end Brent Celek said Jackson’s near-decapitation is just part of life in the NFL. “I’ve played this game since I was in the second grade,” Celek said. “I knew what I was getting into.”

What no one knew until recently were football’s long-term health risks. It seems like every week, there’s a new study linking head injuries to everything from ALS to suicide — for an example of the latter, look no further than the tragedy of Owen Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania lineman who killed himself in April. Last month, Thomas was found to have had a brain disease, C.T.E., whose cause is repetitive brain trauma and leads to depression.

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss these guys as being blindly protective of the game they love, at best, or as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals with an addiction to violence. But to be fair, today’s players grew up watching, and being coached by, the old-school smash-mouth guys who shook off concussions like they were head colds. As Celek said, playing with a certain sense of abandon has been ingrained in him, and the defenders hunting him, since grade school. That’s an attitude that won’t transform easily, if at all.

The NFL can only go so far in terms of legislating away hits like the one Jackson suffered. Real change, though, needs to start at the fundamental levels of the sport — from Pop Warner up through college. Less emphasis on “blowing guys up,” and more on fundamental tackling techniques, an art that seems lost on many of today’s pros. The league, and the networks that carry the games, must also do their part to stop glorifying the types of hits that could one day leave these players breathing through ventilators or riddled with dementia.

Football will always be a dangerous game on some level. But while guys like Celek might be impossible to deprogram, it’s not too late to make the game a little safer for the next generation of NFL stars. Football without devastating hits seems odd, like hockey without fighting. But if something doesn’t change, there will be a lot more deaths like Thomas’s, and more once-great gridiron heroes struggling to remember their own names.