June 30, 2013

MULLEN: What if there was no more football?

By Jeff Mullin
CNHI News Service

---- — With apologies to John Lennon, “Imagine there’s no football, it isn’t hard to do, no blocks and tackles, and no extra points too, imagine Sooners and Cowboys, living life in peace ...”

OK, that’s taking things a bit too far. No football? Unthinkable. You might as well do away with air, water, bacon or doughnuts, for crying out loud.

No football? That was the possibility raised the other day by former Detroit Lions great and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lem Barney.

Speaking at a football camp recently in Southfield, Mich., Barney had some harsh words for his former profession.

He said within the next two decades, football will disappear, and added he wishes he had been a truck driver or a cab driver, anything but a football player.

He said society will do away with football because of the game’s inherent violence, and increasing awareness of the dangers of head trauma and the deaths of former football stars like Bubba Smith, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.

Sunday he backed off, somewhat, saying the camp setting was not the proper forum for his remarks, though he said he stands by them. He said he doesn’t want to discourage young men from playing the game, he just wants them to do it safely.

From the pee-wee level to the pros, efforts are being made to make the game safer. Players no longer are being taught to lead with their heads when they tackle, the amount of contact allowed in practice is changing, players with concussions are not allowed to return to the field before they pass a battery of tests and devices that sense possible concussions are being tested.

At present there is no device that will keep football players free from concussions, said Dave Halstead, technical director for Southern Impact Research Center, a testing lab for sports equipment, on ABC’s “Nightline.”

When two human bodies collide moving at even moderate speed, the forces produced are incredible. A study conducted by Popular Mechanics magazine found an NFL defensive back tackling a wide receiver can produce up to 1,600 pounds of tackling force, subjecting the receiver’s head to as many as 60 times the force of gravity. More violent collisions can produce up to 150 Gs at impact. In comparison, an F-16 pilot can pull as many as 9 Gs in a roll.

So what can be done? Improvement in equipment, emphasis on proper tackling technique, increased strength training, increased penalties for helmet-to-helmet contact, all are important, but you aren’t going to take the possibility of concussions out of the game unless you turn it into flag football, and you won’t get people to shell out more than $78 a ticket (the NFL average in 2012) to see that.

Some have suggested eliminating face masks, or banning helmets altogether. The NFL’s idea is its Heads Up program, which emphasizes tackling mechanics aimed at reducing helmet contact, as well as concussion recognition and response and proper helmet and shoulder pad fitting.

Football is a violent game, which is part of its appeal. Taking the violence out of it altogether will turn it into something other than football.

Education and proper coaching can go a long way toward reducing the risks of football, but they never will be eliminated altogether. That’s something parents must consider when first allowing their sons to participate in the game.

But everything that can be done, must be done, lest Barney’s dire prediction someday come true.

Jeff Mullin is a columnist for the News & Eagle in Enid, Okla. Contact him at