What football needs is another Teddy Roosevelt
The National Football League Monday suspended Oakland Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the remainder of the 2019 season for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle during Sunday's game in Indianapolis.
That means Burfict will not be able to play in the Raiders' final 12 games of the season, nor will he be able to be in the playoffs should Oakland qualify. He will forfeit more than $1 million on the one-year, $2 million contract he signed with the Raiders earlier this year.
Burfict's hit on Doyle is the latest in a series of flagrant-rules violations that have marked his eight-year career in the NFL. It's his third suspension tied directly to on-field infractions (he also has a fourth tied to violating the league's substance abuse policy), and he has been fined 10 times. All told, Burfict has lost more than $4 million due to fines and suspensions during his career.
"There were no mitigating circumstances on this play," wrote Jon Runyan, the NFL's vice president of policy and rules administration, in his letter to Burfict. "Your contact was unnecessary, flagrant and should have been avoided. For your actions, you were penalized and disqualified from the game.
"Following each of your previous rule violations, you were warned by me and each of the jointly appointed appeal officers that future violations would result in escalated accountability measures. However, you have continued to flagrantly abuse rules designated to protect yourself and your opponents from unnecessary risk. Your extensive history of rules violations is factored into this decision regarding accountability measures."
Runyan is no wallflower. He played 14 seasons as an offensive lineman in the NFL with the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. He was an All-Big Ten player at the University of Michigan, where his son, also named Jon, now plays.
Burfict's hit wasn't the only serious helmet-to-helmet blow Sunday. New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones blasted Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen with a hit across the front of Allen's helmet as the quarterback attempted to scramble for a first down. Jones was penalized on the play, but the penalty was offset by a holding call against the Bills. He was not ejected from the game. Allen is currently in the NFL's concussion protocol program and could miss multiple games as he recovers.
Old-school football fans may look at those hits from Burfict and Jones and say, “That's football. It's part of the game.”
But hits like these are unnecessary. A defender can tackle an offensive player without using his head as a battering ram or using an opponent's head as a target. They teach this stuff in Pop Warner football.
Like no other time in the history of the sport, there's a greater concern for the safety of the men who suit up every Sunday in the NFL, as well as for the safety of players who compete at the high school and collegiate levels.
The wakeup call came in the form of a 2017 study by Dr. Ann McKee at Boston University that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. McKee studied the brains of 202 individuals who had played football, including 111 who played in the NFL. All but one of the NFL players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. Disease symptoms include memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia.
The list of former NFL players whose brains were studied included Junior Seau, considered one of the league's all-time great linebackers when he played for the San Diego Chargers; Kenny Stabler, the quarterback for the Raiders' great teams of the 1970s; and Dave Duerson, a star defensive back on the Chicago Bears' 1985 Super Bowl champion team.
The NFL, concerned about its image (to say nothing of the potential of lost revenue), reached a settlement two years ago in a class-action lawsuit filed by retired players. As a result of that lawsuit, the league agreed to pay more than $1 billion toward players’ medical expenses. As of last week, the league had paid out more than $688 million in claims, according to the NFL concussion settlement website.
But what about now? Despite efforts to protect players by issuing penalties, fines and suspensions for egregious hits, we still see cases like Burfict and Jones every weekend. In my opinion, it's producing a ripple effect that could, eventually, lead to the demise of the sport. Some parents are saying “No” to the idea of their kids taking up the sport, even though it offers many great life lessons about teamwork, overcoming adversity, and getting the most out of your God-given abilities.
Have we reached a point where stronger penalties are needed to protect players?
Would the NFL, or even the NCAA, consider a measure requiring multiple flagrant targeting fouls by a team in a game could result in that team forfeiting the entire game? It seems unlikely, especially considering the huge amounts of money that go into telecasts of NFL and major college games. But it would certainly make a point, wouldn't it?
This isn't the first time that the sport of football has been at a crossroads.
In fact, more than a century ago, the brutality of the sport was at a point where many people called for banning football altogether. And the NFL wasn't even in existence yet; that didn't come until 1920.
In 1905, football was almost entirely the province of colleges, mostly on the East Coast, although such Midwestern powers as the University of Michigan and University of Notre Dame were just starting to gain national recognition.
While highly popular – even games in the early era drew up to 40,000 fans – the sport had a brutally dark side. In that year alone, 18 players died of injuries suffered in college football games. At least 137 other players sustained serious injuries.
Some plays, such as the “Flying Wedge” run by Harvard University, involved offensive players assuming a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage and then targeting a single hapless defensive lineman. There also were allegations of cheating and the use of players who were not enrolled at the institutions they represented.
The mayhem caught the attention of then president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, whose son, Teddy Jr., suffered a broken nose during a junior varsity football game between Harvard and arch-rival Yale University.
On Oct. 9, 1905, President Roosevelt called a meeting at the White House. He was joined by Secretary of State Elihu Root, coaches Walter Camp of Yale, William T. Reid of Harvard, and Arthur T. Hildebrand of Princeton University, and alumni leaders of the three Ivy League institutions, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
“Football is on trial,” the president said.
The president loved the game and the lessons it taught young players, but he impressed upon the coaches and alumni representatives that change was needed if football was to survive.
Later that year, representatives from more than 60 colleges met to develop rules designed to improve player safety. By the next fall, new rules were in place. Instead of needing just five yards every set of downs, offensive teams would need to advance the ball 10 yards to gain a new set of downs. A one-yard neutral zone would separate offenses and defenses at the line of scrimmage. Yardage penalties were put in place for unsportsmanlike conduct.
But, by far, the committee's most significant rule change, and one that has become a staple of the modern game, was the institution of the forward pass. Players could now legally advance the ball forward by throwing it from one player to another.
In September 1906, Bradbury Robinson of Saint Louis University threw what is considered to be the first forward pass in college football history against Carroll (Wis.) College. The pass was incomplete and, under the rules at that time, resulted in a turnover.
Later in the game, however, Robinson threw what is believed to be the first touchdown pass in college football history, a 20-yard pass to Jack Schneider. The Billikens, coached by Eddie Cochems, put the newly legal forward pass to great use that season, going undefeated in 11 games and outscoring their opponents 407-31.
With those rules changes, player casualties declined. Fans loved the changes, especially the forward pass. The great Knute Rockne instituted the play as a prominent part of Notre Dame football as its coach. Today, we marvel at guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford in their ability to throw the football with great accuracy and distance.
And the committee that put together those rules? It would become known as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States. Four years later, in 1910, the IAAUS changed to the name nearly all sports fans recognize today – the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA.
So the game of football has evolved and fans love it still – arguably more than ever. Yet it doesn't take the horrific findings of a CTE study to confirm what we can see happening on the field with our own eyes. Too many are getting hurt.
If fans want to continue to cheer for their favorite teams – whether their colors be Honolulu blue and silver, maize and blue, green and white, or brown and gold – they need to insist on tougher rules that truly protect the players.
Ultimately, those rules will ensure the great game of football continues.