Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Games Gone Wrong

TigerBlog saw a story this morning about how the NFL had been selling photos on its website of a hit that James Harrison of the Steelers put on Mohamed Massaquoi of the Browns last Sunday, a hit that drew no penalty flag but did contribute to a $75,000 fine against Harrison.

And there, TigerBlog said immediately, is the whole problem with football right now.

The issue of big defensive-player-as-missile hits would go away right now if the NFL decided it really wanted it to. Unfortunately, there's little evidence to suggest that's the case.

Instead, the opposite continues to be true. The NFL loves the violence because it sells, from TV ratings to video games to pictures on its own website.

It you watch professional football today compared with 20 or so years ago and longer, you'll see among other things the fact that nobody is trying to tackle anymore by putting his shoulder into the ball carriers chest and wrapping him up. Today, your average defensive player doesn't use his arms at all and instead tries to hit the ball carrier as hard as possible (the first player TB remembers doing this was San Francisco's Ronnie Lott). This often results in leading with the helmet.

And then this is what happens:

1) the TV commentators jump all over it as being spectacular, talking in glowing terms about the hit itself while showing numerous replays
2) the hit ends up on SportsCenter and every other highlight show
3) college players see this and figure that's how you have to play to get to the NFL or to get on TV
4) high school and youth kids emulate this

And all of this is so unnecessary, because the NFL could make it stop in one second by 1) strictly enforcing the existing helmet-to-helmet rules and the rule about defenseless wide receivers and 2) by suspending those who make these hits.

This past weekend seemed to be particularly violent in the NFL, especially with the two hits by Harrison and the stunning collision between Atlanta's Dunta Robinson and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson.

And it seemed like the NFL was about to start taking it seriously - and maybe the NFL still is - with the stories about coming suspensions for such hits. But then TB saw the story about the Harrison picture, and that brought him back to the reality that there is money to be made from those kinds of hits.

Call TigerBlog cynical, but he doesn't accept the NFL's explanation that it made a "mistake" in having the Harrison picture for sale.

An hour north of where TB is writing this, Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand is in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle on a kickoff against Army last Saturday. Hopefully LeGrand will make the same sort of progress that Kevin Everett and Adam Tagliaferro were able to make after they were in the same place that LeGrand is now and be able to walk again.

TigerBlog has been impressed by the way Rutgers has handled the LeGrand injury, a situation that is horrible all the way around.

TB today got an email from Mike Cross, who is nearing the one-year mark of his tenure as Director of Athletics at Bradley after spending 10 years working here at Princeton. Included in the email was a reference to a Bradley baseball player, Phil Kaiser, who died Sunday night from an undetected heart ailment.

When you get into the college athletics business, you know that you're going to be working with people who are young and in the peak of health and physical prowess. At its best moments, working in college athletics puts you around people who are devoted to fitness and teamwork, people who awe you with their pure athleticism.

For the majority of college athletes, there is also a true balance between student and athlete, between a healthy mind and a healthy body.

TB has seen it here at Princeton for decades, and still after all this time he is awed by the people he sees here. In many ways, they seem indestructible.

And yet, every now and then, there are worst-case scenarios that have to be dealt with. Sadly, TB has seen it first-hand here, as Princeton athletics has not been immune to tragedy, with athletes, young alums and young colleagues.

It hasn't been easy any of those times. In the end, TB has mostly been left to think about the randomness of it, the sadness of it, the unfairness of it.

You work in college athletics to have an impact on the lives of these young people. If you're lucky, you also get to be there when they have the big wins, the championship experiences, the glory days that nobody will ever forget.

That's why Mike Cross went to Bradley, to help the athletes there have those kinds of moments. And less than a year later, he finds himself in the middle of a tragedy nobody could have anticipated.

And suddenly, he has to deal with it, taking the emotional lead for his department and University.

There's no way to properly prepare yourself for it, and it's an awful experience to have to go through.

It's even worse when it's preventable. The NFL has played with fire for years with the violence in its sport, and worse - it's allowed that violence to trickle down to the kids who play the game.

TB wishes the best to Eric LeGrand and his family and to Phil Kaiser and his family, as well as all of their friends.

He also gives the people at Rutgers and Bradley his best for having to handle these situations and huge credit for how they have.

We're all in this for the fun and games, but unfortunately, that's not always what life is about.


Anonymous said...

The preview feature on Saturday's football game against Harvard mentions that the 13 Tiger teams which won Ivy titles last academic year will be honored at halftime.

When you did your recap at the end of last year, you stated that 12 Princeton teams won championships, followed by Cornell with 7 and Harvard, Penn and Yale with 4 each.

Did something change between the end of last year and now? I think that the mark of a truly great athletics program is one that can win an additional Ivy title over the summer.

Princeton OAC said...

The 13th team is the men's water polo team, which won the Eastern championship. Men's water polo is not an Ivy League sport, but that championship will be recognized Saturday as well.