Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dark omens. Or not.

Whether or not the sky is actually falling depends largely on where you live these days, and what your perspective is. If you're sitting on top of your house in the parts of Houston that are now a vast inland sea, for instance, you're no doubt damn sure the sky is falling. As water.

On the other hand ...

On the other hand, let's talk about football for a minute.

Some people, for instance,  see the rightful (and belated) concern about head trauma in the game, and think it's the beginning of the end for the game itself. If only kids today just learned to rub some dirt on it the way we did back in the day ...

Well. We wouldn't have all this hysteria, and there wouldn't be stuff happening like what happened in New Jersey the other day.

What happened was, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North decided to drop varsity football this season. And at least part of the reason is concern about the concussion issue.

And so let the Chicken Littles begin running in circles.

But while they do, the rest of us might consider a few  additional facts about the West Windsor-Plainsboro situation.

Chief among them is that the decision to drop varsity football was not solely about the concussion issue, or even primarily because of it. More paramount are issues that have led schools to drop football since immemorial: Shifts in demographics, single-sport specialization, cost weighed against participation.

At West Windsor-Plainsboro North, for instance, the varsity comprised only 37 players. That likely had more to do with the decision than anything. And at that, football is not going away there; the school will still field a junior varsity squad.

Now, is the decline in numbers a dark omen of what's to come, as more and more parents steer their kids away from football? Maybe. But the Blob tends toward the pendulum theory of the universe -- which is, in politics and everything else, the pendulum has to swing so far one way before correcting itself.

That's what I think is going on with football. Eventually the concussion issue will be addressed at all levels -- even youth football leagues are partnering with concussion awareness and protocol organizations now -- and proper tackling techniques that avoid helmet-to-helmet contact will become the ingrained instinct they always should have been.

And if they're not?

Well, as my all-time favorite IHSAA commissioner, Gene Cato, used to say, the rules will be clear and the penalties severe.

At the same time a high school in New Jersey was dropping varsity football, for instance, the NFL was dropping Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict from a great height, disciplinarily speaking. Burfict, one of the league's most notorious headhunters, got slapped with a five-game sitdown for an over-the-middle hit on Chiefs' fullback Anthony Sherman in an Aug. 19 preseason game.

The rub-some-dirt-on-it-crowd was quick to point out that Burfict's hit on Sherman was simply a football player making a football play, and they might be right. The zebras threw no flags on the play, Sherman wasn't hurt, and video seemed to suggest Burfict actually hit him with his shoulder.

Which of course got all the Chicken Littles running in circles shouting that the sky was falling and pretty soon the NFL would be a two-hand touch league, and all the usual hysteria.

Lost in all that, of course, were the extenuating circumstances, which were that Burfict is a repeat offender of the first order. And so he got dinged hard for a hit that would likely have gotten another player no discipline at all. And so, no, this was not the NFL trying to legislate good ol' red-blooded American violence out of the game.

Fact is, there will always be plenty of big hits in football, particularly at the NFL level. It is, and always will be, a collision sport. No one's trying to make it less than that. All they're trying to do, in an era in which players are increasingly bigger and faster and therefore generate more foot-pounds of force, is keep the cheap shots to a minimum. Because those cheap shots are far more lethal to careers and lives than they used to be.

The rub-some-dirt-on-it-crowd have this all backward. It isn't legislating the violence in football that will destroy it. It's not legislating it.

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