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Head Cases: The antics of two professional sports leagues

It’s been well documented that the National Football League has had serious problems with concussions. The latest findings, however, suggest that the NFL has an even bigger problem than they had previously thought. Many football players aren’t reporting their concussions for fear of ridicule and losing their spots on the roster. Part of this is due to the military-esque culture within football, but it’s also due to the fact that the NFL does not guarantee player contracts.

Concussions are the most prevalent injury in the NFL by far. Luckily, the NHL has recognized the problems (both short term and long term) that concussions and multiple concussions can cause. Instead of trying to down-play them like the NFL has for a long, long time, the NHL has been proactive in making sure players get the medical attention needed for a healthy recovery.

The NFL has gotten better, but change doesn’t come as easily to them as it does to the NHL. The current NFL concussion controversy is a doctor that sits on the league’s committee on concussions. This doctor is trying to play politics in that he’s discrediting other studies in order to promote his own – the conclusion of which won’t come to pass for another three or four years. The NFLPA, understandably, wants this doctor to be removed from that committee.

Does any of that sound familiar? Because that situation is very similar to the one about high hits in the NHL. Instead of doctors trying to promote their own studies, it’s the NHL itself trying to promote its product. Instead of looking out for the players, the NHL is looking out for itself.

The NHL knows that part of its appeal lies in the level of violence in games. This contradicts its desire to be a family-friendly show, however, which is why it tries to walk that fine line between boxing and figure skating. Fighting is technically illegal in the NHL, but no one gets suspended for it.

A five minute penalty is nothing but a mere slap on the wrist as compared with other sports penalties on fighting, and a two-minute penalty for roughing is even less than that. Suspensions are often handed out in Major League Baseball and the NBA if the situation degenerates into a brawl of some kind. In the NHL, the instigator penalty and associated fines and suspensions are to make sure that the game still keeps some semblance of respectability among the easily offended.

Hitting is the only place in the NHL where violence isn’t just allowed, but encouraged.

Even the most dangerous hit, hitting from behind (or boarding), is only a two-minute penalty (as per Rule 44 in the NHL rulebook). Often, the determining factor between a two-minute boarding penalty and a five-minute boarding penalty is whether the player hit received any injuries.

So, again, it’s more of making sure the NHL looks like it’s protecting its players without actually doing so. If the NHL was serious about protecting the players, a boarding call would instantly result in an automatic suspension. So it’s no wonder that they don’t want to have to make up a rule to prevent shots to the head. That would probably make the game less violent and, therefore, less entertaining somehow.

This sort of mentality is similar with the NFL in regards to concussions. Hitting is a part of the game, so of course some players will get concussions because of it. Football fans love the violent hits, and doing something to prevent concussions would be detrimental to the game because it would take away from that. So they’re dragging their feet in regards to dealing with the issue.

There’s been this one radical idea floating around the NFL for years, and it’s a classic example of thinking outside of the box. The idea is based upon a study of injuries in the Australian Football League. Australian rules football is pretty much what we’d call rugby.

One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it’s a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25 percent more likely to sustain one.

Is it time to retire the football helmet?; Fox Sports

The NHL grandfathered in helmets in 1979. The last player in the league to not wear a helmet was Craig MacTavish, who retired in 1997. Since the requirement of helmets was implemented, there’s been talk of trying to grandfather in visors due to the rise of eye injures, but the NHLPA has been strongly resisting that rule change.

Now, I am not advocating banning helmets to prevent high hits. Although, it does make one wonder if that would have any impact. The fact is, however, that in a sport with walls, sticks, and a flying rubber disk going 80+ mph, the pros of wearing a helmet far outweigh the cons.

What I am advocating is thinking outside of the box.

Justin Bourne, a former hockey player turned writer/blogger, has suggested that removing the instigator penalty would be a start in preventing high hits.

In that era, players were able to police the game because cheap shot artists knew they would eventually get theirs. At some point, you were going to feel the same cheap shot you doled out, just twice as hard. And that makes a guy think twice about taking the shot in the first place. Today, that “fear” is romantically referred to by players of that era as “respect.”

Justin Bourne, USA Today

And you know what? I think he might be on to something. If the NHL won’t protect its players, then it should at least allow the players protect each other.

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