Reunion with Reality

Headshots in the 21st Century

The first game of the NFL regular season, a rematch of last season’s Super Bowl, reminded me why I stopped watching American football. Carolina’s quarterback, Cam Newton, suffered three headshots. What is most upsetting is not that the one headshot that was illegal according to NFL rules was missed by the officials and no foul was called. What is most upsetting is that two of the headshots were legal. By the end of the game, Newton was so beat-up, I thought he might not be able to continue,* and this was only the first game of the year.


When my eyes were opened several years ago by Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker on the damage done to the brain in football-related concussions, I boycotted the NFL for two seasons. I wrote an open letter to NFL Commissioner Goodell asking that monitoring devices be put in all football helmets. I thought that once data on concussions were made available to players and fans, the rules of the game would be changed to eliminate headshots. The reality is: it is the nature of the game that headshots cannot be eliminated. Even so, I think they should all be illegal, even ones that are between players on the same team. How else can we keep them to a minimum?


But then, I am one who thinks that in baseball and softball any pitcher in any league who beans (hits in the head) any batter should be thrown out of the game, whether he or she meant to or not.** I also think that pitchers should be required to wear helmets.


Decades ago, I coached a recreational, coed softball team. We had three good female pitchers. In one game, one of them took a line drive to the head hit by a male batter. She was knocked to the ground unconscious for a moment or two. My heart sank as I ran to the mound. I felt responsible because I thought it should have occurred to me that she might not have experienced a ball hit by a male unless she had played coed softball before.


I have been sensitive to headshots ever since, whether it's a baseball, a softball, a soccer ball, an upper cut or a football helmet.


It is my humble opinion that sports in the 21st Century should be scrubbed of health hazards to the extent possible. We should be a mature audience such that gladiatorial spectacles have lost their appeal. If we are going to build a peaceful world culture, we should take as much violence out of sports as possible. I fear that much of the attraction of football is the violent contact these great athletes endure. It goes without saying in regards to boxing and the relatively new phenomenon of ultimate fighting.


It is a shame. Football is so much fun to play and watch for the sheer athleticism of the players. Even so, violence and especially unnecessary violence is repulsive, at least to me. Heads are particularly vulnerable; no helmet can adequately protect the head from concussion. As seeing headshots literally takes the fun out of the game for me, and as I doubt the NFL will manage to protect players from each other, I suppose I will continue to enjoy football-free Sundays for years to come.


* I read one report that "hitting the reigning MVP [Newton] was key to the [Broncos'] game plan."


** This would, of course, advantage the hitter as pitchers would be more careful when pitching inside, to keep the ball low. It would, I think, be easy to re-balance the advantage by insisting umpire call strikes according to current rules: the strike zone extends from the knees to the letters or chest. Currently, most umpires do not call a pitch between the belt and the letters a strike, as they should.


Copyright 2017 James Phoenix

updated 9/24/2017