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Legalized Mayhem on Field

October 27, 1994|JIM MURRAY

Since time immemorial, sports fans and entrepreneurs have been a bloodthirsty lot. Witness the Christians and the lions. Nero was the promoter of that Super Bowl.

Did you know that the earliest boxing matches were to the death? Even as late as the turn of the century, they fought till one man was knocked out. No la-dee-dah split decisions for those fisticuff sporting types. A round ended only when one guy was knocked down. You never stopped a fight for something as wimpy as a cut eye or a three-knockdown rule. No doctor at ringside, just the coroner.

Today, the sport of choice is pro football. Lots of blood and guts. Stretchers and ambulances on the ready. Only auto racing and ice hockey approach it in mayhem.

Basketball is getting rougher and rougher. Baseball is losing favor because nobody is losing consciousness.

The late Sam Goldwyn used to say, "Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist needs to have his head examined." Well, anybody who plays quarterback in the NFL today does too. Sam might say, "Anybody who plays quarterback has a hole in his head." Or soon will.

Take last Sunday: Reports show that Troy Aikman, Vinny Testaverde and Chris Miller all had to leave their games because of concussions.

Now, "concussion" has a nice, euphemistic ring to it. "Getting your bell rung," is a nice alternate description for it.

The facts of the matter are, any damage to the brain is no laughing matter. Brain cells are irreplaceable. You can't put a splint on the brain. A nosebleed might not be serious. A brain bleed is.

Perhaps you will recall Roger Staubach's retirement was hastened by repeated concussive blows to the head. And that Chicago Bear running back Merrill Hoge took early retirement last week after his doctor told him one more blow to the head could be fatal.

A concussion is serious enough that the victim temporarily (or hopefully temporarily) has no clear idea who he is or where he's at. That's not a very encouraging indication. You will remember in the film, "Requiem for a Heavyweight," the manager (Jackie Gleason) asks his fighter, Mountain Rivera, where he thinks he is and the fighter answers "I'm in Pittsburgh and it's raining."

Fresco Thompson used to ask prospects, torn between a career in football or baseball, "What do you want, kid? A career--or a limp?" Well, even a limp might be preferable to a permanent ringing in the ears.

The problem is, football is a game of intimidation. And has to be taught as such. You may remember, many years ago, the league found one team had kind of an office pool where the money collected went to the player who "got" the quarterback, i.e., made him limp off or ride off the field.

It's interesting that Aikman left the field Sunday probably thinking he was in Pittsburgh and it was raining after a linebacker, Wilber Marshall, slammed him in the face and mouth with his helmet.

Helmets today are plastic head coverings that, like the iron hats of medieval knights, are designed to spare the brain. But they are also weapons. They were used for a tactic known as "spearing" in which the defensive player would launch his helmet, which was about the tensile strength of a cannonball, into any vulnerable position of the guy with the ball.

Coaching staffs didn't exactly teach it. Neither did they discourage it. But the league made it illegal. They didn't want to bring body bags into the game.

The league has always defended itself from charges it was sponsoring legalized mayhem by pointing out that the object in football was not to hurt but to score. In boxing the object is to hurt, maybe, unfortunately, to kill. In football, the idea was to score a touchdown.

But sometimes, on the way to a touchdown, you had to destroy someone in your path. And to get a touchdown, first you had to get the ball. You did this by hitting the quarterback so hard you made him too fearful to be effective.

It's interesting that the coach of the team that made Aikman, so to speak, forget himself is Buddy Ryan.

Now, Ryan is probably the game's most enthusiastic advocate of what has come to be known as "smash-mouth football." I mean, Nero would have loved him. Ryan doesn't want you to die for dear old Siwash, he wants you to kill for dear old Siwash. Like General Patton, he believes in letting the other poor slob die for his side. "Motivation" can sometimes be confused with what they call in boxing, "the killer instinct."

The helmet is so lethal it should probably have a spike on top of it like the Kaiser's. What's to be done about it? No one seems to know. They beefed up scoring by shortening kickoffs and penalizing field goals, but their real problem may be not to get more touchdowns but to get fewer concussions.

Quarterbacks may be as defenseless as the Christians. Football players, like dinosaurs and finned Cadillacs, may be getting too big for the environment. Getting smashed into by 300-pound, 6-foot-7 linemen is something less than humane, but the official party line was voiced by linebacker Jack Lambert some years ago when protection for quarterbacks was first broached. "Let 'em wear skirts," sneered Lambert. As if protecting the body's computer, the brain, was somehow unmanly.

How many concussions is a Super Bowl worth? Aikman has had three concussions and two Super Bowls. The price is not right. Sam Goldwyn was right. He needs to have his head examined.

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