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Hard Hits and the NFL
A penalized hit during a Ravens vs. Patriots game, Oct. 17, 2010 (AP)

A penalized hit during a Ravens vs. Patriots game, Oct. 17, 2010 (AP)

The NFL is getting the message. Last week, it laid serious fines on three professional football players for “flagrant and egregious” hits. 

That has set off a big debate about whether pro football can be football without the kind of spectacular hits that for years have been a staple of highlight reels. 

Is it football without those hits? Is it humane with them?  

We look at big, dangerous, devastating hits, and the NFL.

-Tom Ashbrook 


Kevin Blackistone, columnist for the sports Web site FanHouse.com. He’s a frequent panelist on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” sports roundtable.

Michael Oriard, professor of English and associate dean at Oregon State University. He’s author of “Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era,” and “Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport.” He’s also former offensive captain and second team All-American at the University of Notre Dame, and played four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Tim Hasselbeck, football analyst for ESPN. He’s a former NFL quarterback for the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Buffalo Bills. He’s son of former NFL tight end Don Hasselbeck, and brother of Matt Hasselbeck, who is currently the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.

Ann McKee, associate professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine. She’s director of BU’s Neuropathology Core, where she maintains the University’s “brain bank.”  She has testified before Congress on the NFL and brain injuries.

Joe Nash, former nose tackle for the Seattle Seahawks. He played 15 years for the team.

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  • http://WBUR Paul

    For Dr. McKee -

    I have read many articles this year concerning concussion and repetitive non-concussive head trauma in football.

    I have heard no discussion whatever about youth boxing.

    Is youth boxing a tradition so entrenched in the local culture that we fail to see the absurdity of it in light of what we now know about head trauma?

  • Zeno

    Should we care about the lions or the gladiators in the coliseum? Their destruction is meant to distract us from the misery of our own lives, from the power of the corrupt plutocracy. Its working…it working… Rah! Rah! Rah!

    Bread and circus.

  • Michael

    Wasn’t the massive salaries part of the deal for players going out on to the field and beating up there bodies?

    When one looks at soccer the players often times will fake injury to get penalty called. does your guests think quarter backs and couches will now try to abuse this ruling?

    Not to mention anyone who plays or played football clearly understands football in it’s very nature is an violent sports and anyone could be hurt at any time. As well some of the best players are the ones hitting hard. To prevent brain injuries wouldn’t it be better to have Flag NFL football? (if the goal is to minimize injuries)

    What’s next wrestling(real wrestling not wwe)? Boxing? both could be argued that they do more damage than football.

    It’s seems an select group of people have used the incidents of some players getting laid out as an martyr to water-down football.

  • cory

    Another non-story today. They don’t have to play football if they are afraid of the risks. If they do, they are handsomely compensated for said risks.

    How about a show on roofers with ruined knees at 40 yrs old?

  • terry

    Wow, a lot of negativity towards the players on this board so far.

    It’s not just about professional players, guys. Millions of school age kids play football at all levels, and they pound helmets on the line of scrimmage over and over and over at practice and games. A tiny percentage of them will go on to professional football.

    And even the professionals deserve safe working conditions. There have been rules set up in football since it began (and all sports) to try to keep players reasonably safe and healthy based on the understanding of injury. Our understanding of injury is shifting, so maybe our rule making needs changing. If you’re jealous of their salaries, maybe you ought to take a look at the NFL commission and the team owners, who make orders of magnitude more money than your average offensive lineman (not many people actually have the earning power of Tom Brady, after all) and don’t risk their long term brain health every week.

  • Tom in DC

    I know this probably won’t happen, but what about not wearing helmets and pads? Isn’t the helmet-to-helmet hits, whether on the line or in the field, enabled by having a helmet in the first place?

  • http://brainmindinst.blogspot.com Peter Melzer

    The recent attention to the consequences of concussions and more severe brain injuries should open up new, more stringent diagnostic and therapeutic ways of dealing with this problem. Cognitive tests ought to be applied regularly to professional and varsity players. Therapies must be developed to countermand adverse effects as early as possible.

    As in recovery from brain injury, cognitive behavioral therapies may help. Read more here: http://brainmindinst.blogspot.com/2007/12/about-value-of-exercise-after-brain.html

  • cory


    Cops and corrections officers, construction trades, miners, and truckers are just some more of the every day people who have jobs that are dangerous or take a toll on their bodies. I don’t begrudge pro ballers making money, just that their worklplace safety seems so much more important than everyone elses.

    Many of us face injury or danger on the job, few of us make millions to do it.

  • Margaret Scanlan

    When my sons were yourger, I could never imagine them subjecting themselves to the life-altering knee injuries I had seen from football in family members. After one son had a severe head injury in a bicycle accident, I cannot conceive of any parent risking a child’s brain deliberately through football.

  • Vince Angulo

    I’ve recently seen where T.O. and Chad Ochocinco commented that the NHL hits harder than the NFL. As a hockey fan I’ve seen the NHL do a lot to change this problem: 4-minute majors, game ejections and suspensions. Our MVP was suspended two games for a boarding hit last year — and it was much more expensive for Ovechkin than the $75K the NFL is using. Prior to the 2005 lockout there were a number of teams that had players on IR with broken necks — that’s become pretty rare now…

  • ThresherK

    “You take all the contact away and you’re soccer”? from an audio clip.

    Sounds like someone has never been tackled cleats-up.

  • BHA

    First, I don’t care squat about professional sports – WAY too much money made by players, coaches and owners.

    However, related to this hour – there are already plenty of rules to protect players. Ask Mr. Hasselbeck; the quarterbacks are the most protected. They are NECESSARY.

    People who say football won’t be worth watching without the hits that can cause quadriplegia or DEATH must be the same people who watch NASCAR hoping to see a wreck.

    If there are players who won’t play if they can’t make planned hits that are potentially life threatening, TOO BAD. Take your ball, your MILLIONS of dollars you’ve already made and GO HOME!

  • David Henry

    Most of the hits in question I see are “spearing”-leading with the crown of the helmet head down. These hits have been illegal since the 70′s. They are how people break there necks. The NFL doesn’t need new rules it just needs to enforce its existing rules. You can’t lead with your head, especially with your head down. It has to be head up, helmet to the side, hits with the shoulder pads. I also think a bigger crack down on steriod and growth hormone use would lessen the physics involved.

  • Brittany

    Growing up playing hockey, heavy hits have always been a concern. Having played on women hockey leagues where checking isn’t allowed, I spent a lot of time in the penalty box & have had 5 concussions while playing. People need to understand that the risk isn’t just for hurting OTHER people, its for anyone playing – any wrong or awkward land, someone can injure THEMSELVES – this risk is understood when people agree to play. it’s part of the game & NFL players get paid millions, because they understand this risk.

  • BHA

    I’m not sure Mr. Hasselbeck has the same perspective of the hits he seems to be thinking are OK. As a quarterback, he is protected from them by players and rules. Maybe he needs to be “laid out” a few times by a big guy with plenty of time to get up to full speed before they lower the helmet. I’m sure he took his share of hits and had plenty of pain, but they aren’t the same hits.

  • Mike Ballou

    This is simply an equipment failure. The helmets are heavy and hard, a weapon that has not been upgraded in 60 years. Make them soft, hard, soft from outside to inside. This will lower the G-forces for both the players. Lower the weight with carbon fiber. We can still have the big hits and protect players.

  • w bradford

    Theres an expression about obcenity that its not always easy to define.. but that ‘you know it when you see it’ – and its clear some hits that you see now, even if not so easy to define as rightous or not… You still feel it in your gut.. that it was more than just a good hit, made in good play… that it somehow was going out of its way to be more violent, often done with the helmit used as weapon.. and it seems to me that its a mean thing, dirty, and disrespectful to the professionalism that that these athletes should have in the game

  • Saranna Thornton

    I coach men’s college rugby. We have very few problems with concussion because of the following:
    * It’s illegal to tackle above the shoulders
    * Tacklers must wrap the ball carrier with both hands (which makes it almost impossible to use their heads as spears).
    * Proper tackle form is for the tackler to drive his shoulder into the ball carriers thigh, wrap up behind the ball carrier’s knees. The tackler’s head is to the side of the ball carrier’s bottom (cheek to cheek).

    Rugby has lots of big hits, tackler’s separating ball carriers from the ball. Football just needs to change the rules on what constitutes a legal tackle.

  • Elaine

    It’s insane to allow a sport that causes serious neurological problems. Football needs to be regulated as do jobs that cause serious injuries and workers who take those risks better protected and compensated when they are hurt.

  • colin

    Mean Joe Greene and Jack Lambert wouldn’t get a try-out today. Are 145 pound cyclists the only ones eating tainted beef?

  • BHA

    $75K fine on a guy who makes over $13 MILLION a year.

    BFD. He is POed because he got fined, the fine itself isn’t even a ripple in his income stream.

  • Jessica

    Are we forgetting that this is and has always been a standing rule in the NFL. These hits are illegal (and if you don’t think so I will refer you to the official NFL rule book Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 regarding unnecessary roughness).

    It is the NFL’s fault that they had chosen, up until now, to ignore their own rules, and now they are being chastised for actually enforcing them. If you believe that hitting someone to the point where you cause brain damage is simply “part of the sport” watch boxing.

  • Elizabeth

    The NHL has also recognized that there is simply no reason for allowing players to target the head. You can have solid hits that separate the ball (or puck) from the player without permanently injuring the player. Youth sports reflects the professional sports, and unless you make that change at the pro level, our young players will continue to want to make those plays. I would hope that these VERY well paid and smart athletes can figure out how to play smart! And in the end, it is only a game – you shouldn’t have to give up your brain in order to play it.

  • RobD

    Tim has great points but ESPN segment he mentioned glorified those hits and ESPN is as at fault as the NFL. ESPN drives sports behavior through it’s shows and highlights so please take some ownership!

  • Dave

    There is a counter intuitive relationship between protective equipment and the severity of injuries. The equipment protects the tackler too well and encourages them to hit, as opposed to just stop, the ball carrier. American football players who play rugby soon find that if they tackle in rugby like they tackle in football they risk injuring themselves as much as their opponents.

  • Joe

    What about eliminating pads and protection aka rugby?

  • Will

    What exactly is so special about football where players are now being protected against the risk of brain injury, and yet there are other sports such as boxing where vicious head-shots are prized.

  • joe

    SO WHAT IF IT CHANGES THE GAME OF FOOTBALL!!! In the old days it was called “spearing” (leading with your head). What gets me is why this is controversial. The game ALWAYS CHANGES, in every sport: Cornerbacks making contact past 5 yards was a big deal a few years ago, can we say Instant Replay, how about grabbing a jersey inside the shoulder pads for blocking, onside kicks, two-point conversion, etc…. The game NEVER stays the same. Why it is so difficult to understand that you can’t lead with your head! If the players can’t figure out why this is a safety matter, then let them all whack some sense into each other.

  • Terry Breen

    Football will devolve into a version of “Flag Football”

  • Amy Foster

    I want to know where the money from the fines goes? Back in NFL’s pocket or does it fund head-injury groups? I would be more supportive of the fine if I thought the money went to research.

  • peter nelson

    I’m a huge football fan. Football is the only exception I make all year to my “no TV” policy. I watched 3 1/2 games yesterday, and under the new rules I didn’t see any reduction in the quality of play. So I think people who say stricter rules to protect players will ruin football are nuts.

  • Allan

    I think if a 1/2 inch of foam was added to the outside of the helmets and pads, to take the sting out of hitting with them lots of the hits would be reduced. Make them not a weapon.

  • joe sense

    Every person who thinks leading a hit with a helmet will somehow ruin the sanctity of football or lose a livelihood, ask yourself one question: WILL YOU “TEACH” YOUR KID IN PEE-WEE FOOTBALL TO LEAD A HIT WITH THE HELMET? ’nuff said.

  • Bob Patrick

    Tom –

    I am struck by the dispassionate, factual way your quests during this segment are discussing hits is football compared with the much higher emotional level in the prior segment on Juan Williams.

    A player who is hit risks the danger of a serious injury. NPR’s action caused Mr. William’s his job, which in the end apparently has had little if any adverse financial impact on him.

    Several of the commenters in the football segment spoked to the intelligence of player’s and coaches and the ability of each to adjust to the rules. And they showed a real concern for young players and the need to prevent injuries at that level. I do not recall any reference to “intelligence” on the part of news commentators or their abilities to adjust. In fact, much of the comments were to the effect that there is no need for a person to even seriously consider the rules ( which are apparently intended to achieve an impossible objective) or to adjust to them in any way. The football guests were perfectly aware that a change in the rules would not eliminate all injuries, but were perfectly willing to consider a change and discuss it from a detached perspective.


  • John

    I seem to recall that ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcast used to feature as part of their opening an animation showing the opposing teams’ helmets lined up brow to brow. At the crescendo of the audio the helmets would smash into each other and explode, followed by a fade to commercial. The media has played it’s role in emphasizing extreme violence in football. I agree with the posters above who correctly point out that spearing has been illegal for decades. I watched the hit by that linebacker, and he lowered his head just before contact. When I was a kid NO coach would teach that – even 40 years ago everyone knew that this was how you broke your neck.

    Improved helmet technology can only go so far. The fact is that players have become heavier and faster than ever before, so the energy transfer in collisions has increased. I was surprised to hear one of the guests question whether repeated head hits cause cumulative brain damage. Just look at boxing! The image of the “punch drunk” boxer has been with us seemingly forever. Sure, boxers take more direct hits, but I’d wager that over a boxer’s career he takes far fewer than a pro football lineman. The brain sits surrounded in a pool of fluid inside your skull. This is to provide cushioning for the brain when the head moves around in a normal fashion. Concussions and brain injury occur because the head moves so fast that the cushioning system can’t function. Then, the skull impacts the brain. There is bound to be some damage. We’re arguing over how much damage there is, but ultimately the question may come down to whether we as a society should continue to play what is after all only a game — that requires it’s players to damage their brains.

  • John

    I recall years ago reading a study that examined ways to pad the outside of football helmets in order to reduce the likelihood of brain injury. The problem was that the solution caused a different problem. The cushioning material had a much higher friction coefficient than the standard plastic material helmets were made from, which meant that players’ heads were more likely to “catch” and twist the players’ heads too far. The conclusion was that the reduction in impact injury was offset by the increased likelihood of twisting injuries. That said, materials have improved in 20 years, so it would be interesting to see if helmets could be made safer for all concerned.

  • mad-nomad

    The NFL is a $9 billion dollar a year industry. These guys are making $5,10,15,20 million per year, TO PLAY A GAME!!!! I wonder if they were paid say $50,000 per year, like most of the rest of us, if they would be so flagrent with the only brain they will ever have?

    Maybe thier grossly bloated wallets, cause them to feel indestructable. They know what is coming when they step on the field of play.

    MLB pitchers have snapped thier arms on the mound. Should MLB tell the pitchers not to throw so hard. Let them break themselves to pieces if they choose.

    Rugby is a full contact sport, with no helmets, and they do not have these kinds of problems.

    The one guest speaker said, “it was a crime to fine someone $75,000″. The real crime is paying them what they do in the first place. But that is the fans fault, willing to pay the average, $77 per ticket.

  • Soccer fan

    The NFL is correcting/fixing the problem with monetary fines? outrageous! ridiculous! crazy! the players will probably buy insurance to cover for this type of fines. The NFL is totally missing the point on how to handle this problem. Players should be suspended from the currrent game and/or subsequent games or the entire season, depending on the severity of the blow/fault. Real players care about playing the game, not about $$.

  • larry saffer

    I may sound a little callous but, Wah-Wah-Wah. The players may get a severe injury when getting hit. That’s why they make so much money. How much does the soldier make taking a hit from a roadside IED? How much does the fireman make crawling under the rubble of a fallen building looking for survivors as he waits to have his head hit by tons of collapsing debris? How much is the average salary of any police officer being shot at in our inner cities? I say quit crying. Go back to playing your ” game ” and entertain me like I’m paying you for.

  • Mark Picot

    A standardized pre season evaluation used by the N.E. Patriots should be mandated. I agree with Dr. McKee, subconcussive events are the problem and may be related to jaw cartilage damage. The temporal mandibular joint is located just centimeters from the medial temporal lobe, where most CTE is found. Connecting the link to a particular type of trauma found primarily in boxers is the key. Why do some boxers and athletes become prone, what is the mechanism of injury, what change occurs physiologically in these subjects?
    Playing football with a boxers “Glass Jaw” is dangerous to one Harvard MGH researcher. Developed with Marvin Hagler, the basis of this theory/ is boxing, where mouth guards are mandated. The NCAA, NFHS and most leagues mandate mouth guard use. Why is the NFL immune? http://www.mahercor.com

    see links

    http://www.mahercor labs.com/pdf/Dental_ Traumatology%20Publi cation.pdf

    http://fourthandgoa lunites.com/2010/07/ 21/nfl-and-nfl-playe rs-association-ne
    ed-to-mandate-the- use-of-mouth-gaurds/

    http://fourthandgoa lunites.com/2010/02/ 24/why-is-the-mouth- guard-not-a-manda
    tory-piece-of-equi pment-in-the-nfl/

    http://www.kansasci ty.com/2009/11/05/15 52026/cassels-secret -weapon-against.h

    http://www.usajunio rhockey.com/archives /USAJHM_Sept_09_12_2 4.pdf

  • http://whilewestillhavetime.blogspot.com John Hamilton

    It’s a bit silly, parsing the brutality of professional football. The game is about money, bringing the rubes into the stadiums and watching their television sets so that the owners can makes millions of dollars. The health and welfare of the players have never been a concern, except insofar as they generate dollars.

    There are several ways to reduce the number and severity of injuries. They could play the game with no pads whatsoever. They could play completely naked, including without shoes, greased down for slickness ala the ancient Greeks. They could play with leather helmets, with more inside padding.

    I enjoy a great play as much as anyone else, but can’t watch a pro football game for more than ten minutes. It’s just too boring. If you take the hyped-up commentary out of TV broadcasts, there is little real excitement. Back in the days of Lindsey Nelson it was just straight-up football, with play-by-play narration, but no fake frenzy.

    Maybe we need a new game. Pro football has pretty much run its course. If you’ve seen one great catch, run, kick, or hit, you’ve seen them all. After Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, it can only be redundant at best, and usually far less.

  • joshua

    The programming at NPR and Onpoint has gooten so boring these days. Is this a sports show? Part of the conservative agenda implemented under Bush after 911. Dumb down america!

  • Tom

    I played high school football in the 50′s before face masks. Most injuries were lower body (knees and ankles) with head injuries a rarity. Nobody tackled head first because it hurt to run into somebody with your face. Get rid of face masks and impact concussions will disappear. How many rugby players get concussions?

  • http://DrMcKee Gabe Fernandez MD

    I had the privilege of being Univ of Alabama Team
    Neurosurgeon for 30 yrs 1965-1990. During these yrs we had our shares of Concussions and the so called Bell Rung which should be changed to Cerebral Commosion’

    It was clear to me that the number of incidents tended to increase with the later years. The main factors that changed was the weight and speed of the players Remembering our Physics MASS X VELOCITY= FORCE.
    That fact alone would tend to increase the frequency and severity of the Injury.

    Another factor the attachment of the face mask to the helmet and improvement of the helmet made the player aware of the safety of his face without improving the safety of the Brain. In reality Force increased dramatically.
    Finally a Concussion in little league Footbal should be considered a more potentially and with greater Morbidity than High School- College and Prof Football.

  • http://Aol Gabe Fernandez MD

    The problem with sub concussion events is that the player if not rested loses some of his defensive capabilities and a subsequent more serious injuriesw can occur.

    The medical and training staff at the college and Pro level can pick this up but at the little league and high school level it may be insufficient in numbers.

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