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Tough Choices: Hit High Or Low on Tackle?


There are a myriad of choices and decisions players and coaches make during a football game — we all know that. Today, college and professional players have another choice – hit high on a tackle and get fined or ejected, or hit low and blow out your opponent’s knee with the very distinct possibility of wrecking your own shoulder or neck.

This is the quandary facing modern day football players. The final realization that those of us who played in earlier decades and somehow played through the “dings” of head injuries — which we now know could have lasting effects on some of us — has brought about new legislation designed to protect players from debilitating consequences later in life.

Dr. Arthur Ogden says that the recent rules to prevent head-to-head contact are necessary but officials need to address rules of engagement for collision and contact in football more aggressively before players are crippled from knee injuries.

There are now rules specifically designed to eliminate hitting opponents in helmet-to-helmet contact called “targeting.” Players whose helmets come off during a play are required to go to their sidelines for one play to undergo a “protocol” to determine if they have suffered any form of head injury.

All this is well-intended, and, perhaps, long overdue. We have seen the horrific effects of repeated head injuries to men who played for the love of the game, only to discover that as they reached middle-aged years, their mental faculties began to rapidly decrease.

Charges of misinformation, disinformation and outright lying have been tossed about to the extent that both the NFL and college football have taken dramatic steps to make certain that head injuries are limited and, if they do occur, are immediately treated with great care and attention.

This is all good. As with everything we humans attempt, however, there are unintended consequences.

Let me back up for a moment, though. For almost five decades I have been associated with football as a player, a coach, an athletic director, and I have loved every second of it. I have suffered a broken neck, knee injuries, shoulder injuries, elbow injuries and the usual host of other “bumps and bruises” affiliated with this sport.

And I love football!

But let’s get one thing straight from the jump – football is not for the faint of heart. I have heard it said that Vince Lombardi once declared, “Football is not a contact sport! Dancing is a contact sport! Football is a collision sport!” Reflect on the fact that he uttered that quip when a big lineman was 220 pounds and a fast player could run 100 yards in 11 seconds.

Equipment was different then, too, with plastic shell helmets, single-bar face protectors, for lack of a better word, and there were “cleats” on the bottoms of high-top leather shoes which could be screwed on and off.

Obviously a great deal has changed since Lombardi coached. Equipment is far more sophisticated. Fields are now “prescription” seeded, and the PLAYERS, well the players are bigger, faster, and stronger! And that is an understatement.

One thing about football has not changed, however, and it goes back to one of my favorite subjects of study – physics. Today, just as when Lombardi was making Green Bay into a perennial NFL power back in the 1960s the simple formula F=ma is a fact of the game.

“Force” equals “mass” times “acceleration.”

This simple fact of football still rules supreme. The only difference is that the players today have more of the “m” and the “a.” Consider this: Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen – QB Harry Stuhldreher, FB Elmer Layden, and HB’s Jim Crowley and Don Miller – weighed 151, 162, 162, and 160 pounds respectively. Compare that with a 6-foot-5, 250-pound college quarterback who led his team to the 2010 BCS National Championship.

Hmmm…and it’s still F=ma.

So now, to protect players from head injuries, tackling has to take place lower on the body – and the unintended consequence is a rash of leg injuries.

Last week, the huge tight end of the New England Patriots, Rob Gronkowski, was tackled by Cleveland Browns safety, T.J. Ward. The result is a  season-ending injury to Gronkowski – torn ACL and MCL.

Earlier in the season Green Bay’s wide receiver Randal Cobb was tackled by Baltimore’s Matt Elam in a low dive for Cobb’s legs. Result – Cobb’s fibula was fractured with the bone nearly shattered.

And in a pre-season game, Houston Texan rookie safety, D. J. Swearinger, legally tackled Miami Dolphins’ tight end, Dustin Keller, which ended Keller’s season. Keller was on a one-year contract. For all intents and purposes, Keller’s football career is over.

Such incidents are not likely to subside as the injury-conscious, “safety-first” NFL’s 2013 edition moves on. So the choice remains – do we protect for head injuries, which can produce life-long debilitations? Or do we let the rules leave players’ legs and knees exposed to career-ending collisions?

Back in July, Ellis Johnson, defensive coordinator of Auburn University, commented to Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com, “…my biggest fear [of these new rules] is that if they keep bringing us down lower and lower, I think you are going to see leg injuries on offensive players and neck injuries on defensive players.”

Some choice!

Is there any solace? One thing is teaching proper tackling technique. That alone would be a good start to protecting head and neck injuries. But with the size and speed of today’s players, the only solace seems to be to get back to the weight room!

Coach Tom Rosandich, Founder, CEO and president of the United States Sports Academy, was a pioneer in weight training. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began spreading the word to professional football teams that building muscle mass would increase speed, enhance agility, reduce injury rehabilitation time, and protect players. He was particularly and acutely aware of building the neck muscles. Many of those teams took heed and today have their players on year-round weight training programs.

While head injuries are a major concern, the neck injuries often associated with head hits can be far more dangerous, even fatal. Building neck muscles can reduce this risk — just ask Coach Rosandich.

So, as we see the results of these new rules play out this season and in future seasons, it is obvious that concern will begin to focus on leg injuries, as an unintended consequence. I believe eventually some measures will be moved into place to protect players in this regard, but for now, defensive backs have to make choices about how to tackle, and wide receivers are very wary about their legs.

Some choice! Not much solace!

Dr. Arthur Ogden, the Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy, can be reached at aogden@ussa.edu. Ogden has coached college football for 12 years, including as defensive coordinator at Auburn University, and served as a Director of Athletics at the collegiate level for 10 years. His doctoral dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of education won the coveted Dilley Award for Outstanding Dissertation of the Year in 1995.


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