Football Kills, But Head Hits Keep Coming

Does he read the stories? Watch the news? Hear about the suicides, the dementia and Alzheimer’s cases, the debilitated former players who can’t remember what they said two seconds ago? Does it sink in when a 16-year-old is knocked unconscious by a helmet-to-helmet hit, lapses into a coma and dies? That happened days ago in Buffalo, the 25th injury that has killed a high-school football player in this country over the last decade, many involving skulls and brains.

Does any of this resonate within Dashon Goldson? Does he realize the NFL is struggling with a daunting concussions crisis that threatens its long-term existence, that the league is trying to prevent vicious hits to the heads and necks of defenseless players? Was he visiting another planet when commissioner Roger Goodell, aiming to avoid a court case that would have devastated the league’s public image on the issue, agreed to a $765-million settlement with ex-players for concussion-related lawsuits? When the Tampa Bay safety is using his helmet as a weapon — after drawing a league-high 15 personal fouls since 2010, including five unnecessary-roughness violations the last two-plus seasons and a $30,000 NFL fine for a hit last week — is he at all cognizant of the changing culture around him?

Evidently not.

“The NFL has its own rules, but we’re just trying to play football,” Goldson told the media after his latest cheap shot, a blow to the head of New Orleans running back Darren Sproles. “We’re not worried about those penalties, we’re really not. That’s just football. We learn how to tackle when we’re young, and (we’ve) been doing this for a long time.”

Given his blase attitude about a life-and-death matter, the league certainly was justified in delivering Goldson a one-game suspension without pay “for a flagrant and repeat violation of NFL safety rules prohibiting hits to the head and neck area of defenseless players.” But oddly, though his cumulative body of dirty work speaks for itself, Goldson won his appeal of the suspension and will be allowed to play Sunday against New England, where the 0-2 Buccaneers will try to turn around an uncommonly dysfunctional opening month. Goldson still be fined $100,000.

I’m trying to comprehend this reversal. I’m having considerable trouble doing so. The league needs these suspensions to stick to enforce the all-important message that helmets cannot be used as weapons. A day off would have given the $41.25-million free agent time to ponder what he’s doing wrong in a sport trying to make things right. Maybe he would have re-read a letter from Merton Hanks, the league’s vice president of football operations.

“You had an unobstructed path to your opponent,” Hanks wrote about the Sproles hit. “It is clear that you lowered your head and unnecessarily rammed the left side of your helmet into the left side of your opponent’s head. You delivered a forceful blow with your helmet and made no attempt whatsoever to wrap up your opponent or make a conventional tackle on the play. This illegal contact clearly could have been avoided.”

But Matt Birk, the former NFL offensive lineman who is serving as an independent appeals officer, chose to erase the suspension. While the league signed off on the Birk appointment in a joint agreement with the NFL Players Association, Roger Goodell cannot be pleased with the reversal. Nor am I.

Despite the league’s emphasis on protecting brains and enforcing stricter safety rules, the new season continues to bring too much nasty, dangerous play — and not much remorse from the violators. Take Titans safety Bernard Pollard, a notorious hard-hitter who arrived in Tennessee in June and told the local newspaper that his goal “is the Super Bowl, and out mission is to kill.” Well, Pollard was fined $42,000 in Week 2 for his concussion-causing hit on Houston star Andre Johnson. Pollard’s response on his Twitter feed, per “So @nfl said I did “everything right” but 42k later I still get fined. Wow! It’s called football but they want 2 hand touch. #TitanUp#”

Two-hand touch?

Some of these head-hunters just do not get it. And if the threat of a suspension is removed by an “independent appeals officer” who happens to be a former player and might side with the players, then how are we making the game cleaner and safer for the human brain?

Last week, we asked why Detroit Lions troublemaker Ndamukong Suh received a record-setting $100,000 fine but wasn’t suspended after an illegal block that could have ended the career of Minnesota lineman John Sullivan — this after a terror streak that included nine personal fouls his first two seasons, a two-game suspension for stomping on the arm of Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith in a Thanksgiving 2011 game, a kick to the groin of Houston’s Matt Schaub last Thanksgiving and a total of $342,794 in fines. Without another suspension, Suh could continue to run amok, with another Thanksgiving looming.

“I’m going to continue to play hard, blue-collar football,” said Suh, who caused no problems Sunday in Arizona.

This was followed by two other disturbing stories: a Fox Sports report that Suh, during practice, has been known to stomp on players and ram heads into the turf; and a report that he was investigated and cleared by police in a Detroit suburb for allegedly threatening a cable repairman with a pellet fun. “Ndamukong gives guys the business,” Fox insider Jay Glazer reported. “He’ll slam a guy’s head against the ground, he’ll stomp on a guy, he’ll take little shots at guys, and guys are concerned that if he can’t control himself even in practice, how can he control himself against somebody else’s jersey?” Lions coach Jim Schwartz aggressively denied the report, but with Suh, anything seems possible.

Then came another helmet-to-helmet hit Sunday, with Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy suffering a concussion after taking a shot from Washington safety Brandon Meriweather. Later, Meriweather departed the game with a concussion after another helmet-to-helmet hit on James Starks. He has a history of dirty play, but because he hasn’t been in trouble since 2011, Meriweather will be fined, not suspended.

Goldson’s history is what the Bucs should have considered when they signed him after six seasons in San Francisco. But coach Greg Schiano isn’t exactly emphasizing discipline in what has become the league’s most chaotic franchise on and off the field. Last month, the issue was a staph-infection crisis in the team facility that cost the Bucs a high-priced offensive lineman in Carl Nicks and a veteran kicker, Lawrence Tynes, who is considering legal action against the franchise. Last week, the issue was whether Schiano rigged the team captaincy vote against quarterback Josh (Rip Van) Freeman — Schiano denied it — after Freeman slept in for the team photo. Now, while Schiano decides if Freeman is too lacking as a performer and leader to be his starter moving forward, he has a league-wide perception that he’s running an undisciplined ship. After committing 13 turnovers for 102 yards in a Week 1 loss to the Jets, which ended foolishly when Lavonte David shoved Geno Smith and was whistled for a late hit, the Bucs had 10 more penalties for 118 yards in the New Orleans loss — three on second-quarter hard hits involving Goldson, Adrian Clayborn and Ahmad Black. They lead the league in penalties and are going nowhere fast. Yet Schiano doesn’t seem too fazed, though he must know that Goldson’s suspension comes with bad timing — just as premier tight end Rob Gronkowski returns for the Patriots.

“When we made the decision to bring Dashon here, that was not a concern. Was I aware that he was a big hitter? Yes. Dashon is trying to do the right thing,” Schiano said. “He’s just got to lower his target point and sometimes the point moves, so that means you have to go lower still. He certainly is trying. It’s not one of those, `Oh, I don’t care, I’m just going to do that.’ He’s very aware and trying.”

Really? Is it perhaps a case of Schiano not being fully aware of the safety restrictions — or not willing to accept them — as he stresses hard-nosed defensive football? And a case of his players taking his cue? “If something’s going to be called, we have to avoid it because it’s hurting the football team,” Schiano said. “On the same token, I want our guys to play hard. I don’t think anybody’s intentionally trying to do that, so we just have to be more and more aware of that situation and make sure we avoid that as much as we can.”

The juxtaposition here is awkward. On a Sunday afternoon, a coach and his players are trying to make a living, and no one is considering in the heat of that moment how many of them won’t be living quality lives in 20 years. The NFL is trying very hard to alter the mood of a violent league, but as long as Dashon Goldson is out there roaming like a shark, claiming it’s “just football,” this will continue to be a death sport.