American Football helmet-to-helmet hits and Hockey blind-side hits: A tale of 2 leagues

January 14, 2011


The National Football League launched its website on 11 January 2011.

The website has tabs entitled History and Commitment, Health & Safety Resources, and Media Centre. There are sections on Medical Studies and Community Resources and links to some interesting sites.

It looks pretty and professional and Commissioner Roger Goodell sounds sincere when he says that the NFL ‘has a long standing commitment to the health and well being of its players’ but I’m not entirely convinced.

Recall that this message is coming from a league whose commissioner didn’t acknowledge a connection between head injuries on the football field and later brain diseases in testimony before the US Congress in 2010 while defending their policies on head injuries.

The league, however, properly fired a shot across the bow in the fall threatening suspensions after six players sustained head injuries after violent hits on games played on 17 October 2010. The NFL’s executive vice-president of football operations Ray Anderson then called out for a ‘higher standard of accountability’ to address ‘egregious’ contact, ‘devastating hits and head shots.’

It was to be a brave new world.

Fast forward to now. No player has been since been suspended for illegal hits.

Did the threat work? Is the health and well being of its players first and foremost on the minds of the league? It’s hard to say but suspensions are unquestionably more sensible and effective as a deterrent than issuing fines which range from the measly ($5000) to the meager ($50000) for illegal hits to athletes who earn millions a year.

And now the NFL wishes to expand the regular season by two to 18 games.

Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Medical University of South Carolina sports medicine program says there is no doubt that there will be an increase in injuries as a result. Dr. Matthew Matava, the head orthopedic surgeon for the St. Louis Rams, echoes this view noting that four to 10 players on his team are injured in a typical week, and that the longer season would inevitably raise the number.  Read the full Canadian Press article here.

In sum, the jury’s out whether or not the NFL is serious about the health of its athletes and if this website is nothing more than a high-tech smokescreen to deflect attention from the culture of violence that has permeated onto the playing field.

Meanwhile, in the other North American professional sports league which covets violence but – unlike its gridiron brethren, celebrates fights – there has been signs of progress.

In response to concussions sustained by Florida Panther David Booth and Boston Bruins’ Marc Savard arising from blind-side hits last year, the National Hockey League passed Rule 48 that prohibits ‘lateral or blindside hits to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.’

The NHL almost got it right. The flaw in Rule 48 is that the head must be targeted. In other words, the contact must be intentional.

That the infraction must be intentional has led to the almost absurd situation of NHL vice-president and discipline czar Colin Campbell playing psychoanalyst and jurist in attempting to get into the minds of the offending players and determining whether the head shot was done on purpose or not.

Rule 48 is a step in the right direction. That the league has to play mind reader in administering justice is not.

Not to mention the insult to the intelligence that the $2500 maximum fine for an illegal hit to the head represents to every thinking person (and hockey fan).

Then the premiere player and leading goal scorer in the league, Sidney Crosby, was concussed by a hit at the Winter Classic game on 1 January 2011 which somehow went unpenalized when he was away from the puck and looking in the other direction from his assailant. We are left with no other explanation than the hit was unintentional and a part of the game. Crosby remains out of the lineup for an indeterminate period of time with a brain injury.

To see a video of the hit and a transcript of an interview with Crosby, click here.

The National Football League doesn’t care about intent. It only cares about the harm suffered. 

The International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency has the same strict liability approach to doping. WADA holds an athlete strictly liable for substances found in his or her bodily specimen, and that an anti-doping violation occurs whenever a prohibited substance (or its metabolites or markers) is found in a sample, whether or not the athlete intentionally or unintentionally used a prohibited substance. 

Unfortunately, the NHL wants to have their cake and eat it too. Trevor Amon in The Vancouver Sun adroitly noted that the league wishes to market their marquee player but maintain the status quo of a culture of violence that ironically endangers their cash cow.

The NHL should tear a page from the WADA playbook and adopt a strict liability approach to blindside hits to the head.

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