Don't let vicious play tarnish the Super Bowl

The NFL's regular season ends this weekend and the playoffs to determine the Super Bowl matchup come next. Pro football, as well as hockey's NHL, must further reduce head injuries and provide a better example for young athletes on how to avoid concussions.

The sports cliché about two opponents going “head to head” has lately taken on a new and troubling meaning.

Head injuries to some big stars in professional sports have put a spotlight on the need for more safety in knock-’em-sock-’em team sports. Football and hockey, in particular, with their fans demanding action and thrills, are prone to violence.

As the National Football League (NFL) heads toward the Super Bowl and college football finishes up its bowl games, many more millions will watch in glorious high definition as helmets crack, bodies fly, and stretchers come on the field.

Meanwhile, the National Hockey League (NHL) will offer a special event – its Winter Classic played on an outdoor rink (weather permitting), featuring arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. If it’s anything like a typical regular-season game, several players may need tending to during or after the game by the trainer.

Individual players have been reluctant to lead the call to prevent head injuries, lest they be viewed as, well, wimps. But this year NFL stars such as quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, and Jay Cutler, and receiver DeSean Jackson have missed games with concussions. The league averages one or two concussions for every game it plays. Reported concussions this year are up 20 percent over 2009, according to NFL data.

Some of this dramatic increase may be due to better reporting. Both the league’s owners and the players’ union have begun paying attention. Injured superstars on the sidelines, they realize, aren’t good for business. The league has prominently stepped up penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, including fines and suspensions.

Of course concussions happen across sports. In baseball, the Minnesota Twins’ all-star first baseman Justin Morneau suffered a concussion in July and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Pro soccer star Taylor Twellman of the New England Revolution retired at age of 30 because of the effects of a concussion.

In the NFL, injuries have even become an issue in the dispute over a new contract between the league and its players. Owners want to increase the season from 16 to 18 games by converting two of four preseason contests. The players’ union estimates that would mean thousands of additional plays – and a commensurate increase in injuries.

New helmet designs may be one long-term solution. But experts say nothing radically better in materials or design is available today or likely to be developed anytime soon.

Concern that injured players may experience problems long after their careers are over looms over the discussion. To its credit, the NFL has donated nearly $1 million to study the prevention and treatment of concussions.

It can be argued that NFL players are adults who decide to risk injury. What’s more troubling are head injuries among high school athletes. One expert estimates that for every reported concussion in the NFL, some 50,000 take place in youth sports. Among the 1.1 million high school football players, an estimated 55,000 receive a concussion each year, according to one report.

Hockey has its own problems. A study of teenagers playing junior hockey in Canada found fully a quarter of players had had concussions and that 80 percent of these injuries were due to an intentional blow to the head. Note that: 80 percent.

In early 2010, the NHL decided to ban blind-side hits to the head. But through Dec. 1 of this season there have been 33 concussions, the same as last year.

In youth sports, states are beginning to act. New Jersey recently passed a law requiring a high school player with a suspected concussion to be removed from the game and undergo a battery of tests. The player must stay off the field for a week after any symptoms subside. Pop Warner, the youth football program for pre-high schoolers, now requires clearance from a doctor before a player with a head injury can return to the field.

Teaching safer tackling techniques that don’t permit leading with the helmet – enforced by penalties, fines, or suspensions – will be the best solution in the short run.

The NFL needs to set the example for its young fans. This week safety Brandon Meriweather, only a sometimes starter for the New England Patriots, was inexplicably named to the Pro Bowl. His only claim to fame: a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit he’d made on the Baltimore RavensTodd Heap that knocked him out of the game – and earned Meriweather a $50,000 fine.

Fans may go to car races in hope of seeing a spectacular crash or a boxing match to see a fighter pummeled into unconsciousness. But as the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport (NFL games are frequently among the most-watched TV programs) pro football needs to guard its image. It is a sport that showcases grace, speed, strategy, action, and, yes, mighty collisions.

But it should stop short of turning itself into a dangerous head-butting street brawl.

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