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61 : What The French Toast?! Reactions from Episode 60

If only cleaning up dirty hits were as easy as chewing some Orbit gum...

Last week in Episode 60, I discussed a hit by New York Giants veteran defensive back, Leon Hall on Green Bay Packers wide receiver, Jordy Nelson.  Nelson was diagnosed with fractured ribs as a result of the hit.  I described this hit as being "dirty" and I then when on to talk about how the NFL missed an opportunity to change the self sacrificial culture that exists in football and protect future players. In both criticizing and defending Leon Hall's actions on the field, I discussed an article written in 2009 by Malcolm Gladwell titled, How Different are Football and Dog Fighting?  I highly suggest reading/listening to Episode 60 and watching the video of the hit below before continuing with this article/episode.

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I always want to hear listener's feedback on each episode, but I was particularly interested in what people had to say about this hit.  I never want to come off as being anti-football because frankly, I love football.  Some of my best memories come from playing football as a kid and I want every kid to have the opportunity to play the game, but in the safest possible way.  In my humble opinion, the best way to do that is by changing the culture.  After posting Episode 60, I proceeded to tag as many Facebook friends as possible, who I thought might have an opinion on the subject.  Being from NJ, I received responses from Giants fans, friends I grew up playing football with, football Dads, former youth football coaches, current high school coaches, a former division 1 college football equipment manager and even one New York Giants beat writer.  I screen shotted all of the comments and some trends definitely came up, which I discuss in length in Episode 61.

Define Dirty...

From most of the comments, the definition of 'dirty' was always in question.  What makes a hit dirty or clean?  Most consider a hit to be dirty if the player's intention was to injure an opponent on a particular play.  Unfortunately, there is no way to go into someone's head and replay what they were thinking at the moment of impact.  So by this definition, it is nearly impossible to ever call any hit 'dirty.'  However, I feel a more appropriate description of the type of hit that we would all like to see removed from the game are UNNECESSARY & AVOIDABLE hits on defenseless players.  My definition of an unnecessary hit would expand the current unnecessary roughness rules to include any hit at or below the knees, any hit to the head or neck, and all hits where contact is initiated with the helmet or facemask on defenseless receivers.  

The rules listed below can be found in the PLAYER CONDUCT section of the NFL Rulebook

ARTICLE 6. UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS.  One of the descriptors of the penalty is "using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily."

ARTICLE 7. PLAYERS IN A DEFENSELESS POSTURE. It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. (a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass (passing posture). (2) A receiver attempting to catch a pass who has not had time to clearly become a runner. If the player is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.

As someone who played the game for 10 years and spent at least 4 years working in the game, I whole heartedly believe that defenders can just as easily put their heads to the side of a defenseless receivers body as they can ram their facemask or helmet into their body's. This is where the AVOIDABLE part of my definition comes into play.  I felt that the hit on Jordy Nelson was easily avoidable because he was not capable of warding off impending contact.  Players shouldn't get away with dangerous hits just because they chose not to go helmet to helmet. When it comes to defenseless receivers, there is a choice. 

It was wrong of me to insinuate that Leon Hall had malice in his intentions going into that hit, but I still think it was Unnecessary & Avoidable.

Fear Factor...

I fully understand that fear and intimidation is a major part of the game of football.  I also feel this is one of the great lessons football teaches.  It's uncomfortable to jump up and catch a ball fully knowing you are about to get crushed by a linebacker, just like it is uncomfortable to stand in front of a hundred people and present a speech.  If you are comfortable, you're not growing and football teaches you to embrace discomfort. There is a reason why the term "alligator arms" exists, because the defense never wants the receivers to feel too comfortable out there.  The short reach comes from the fear in the back of the receiver's head, which is saying "forget the ball, save yourself!"  I still think you can send this message without sticking your facemask or helmet into a receivers rules because in these 'alligator arms' situations, the receivers are almost always defenseless. Use your shoulder, thats why you wear shoulder pads.

Technique...

Personally, I was never taught to use my head as a point of contact at any level of play.  We were always taught to "bite the ball", which requires you to keep your head up.  We were however taught to get our heads across when making tackles from perpendicular angles, which essentially uses your head as an extra limb.  According to the comments (above) made by LF Vanorski, who is a high school football coach, that is no longer the case.  I can remember one tackle I made in particular when I got my head across to make a form tackle and definitely cleared out the cobwebs in the process.  To be honest, getting your head across in those situations is the most effective way to ensure the ball carrier doesn't break your tackle, but at what cost? These techniques are taught to maximize safety, especially when it comes to protecting the head and neck.

Although I was taught the proper safe tackling techniques for the time period by my coaches, I definitely witnessed some that made me scratch my head while working in college and professional football.  Specifically blitz pick-up techniques that used, what I would consider the crown of the helmet, as a point of contact.  Even the hits in practice during these drills would make me cringe.. Yes, we're talking about practice!  Effective in preventing sacks, yes? Safe, definitely not...

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The Film Never Lies...

Coach Vanorski provided a few examples of what a dirty hit was to him.  The first video is of Chuck Cecil making two vicious hits.  The first hit I would consider legal because the ball carrier is not defenseless, but the second hit on the very next play is undoubtedly a hit on a defenseless receiver.  Cecil was known as one of the hardest hitting players of his time and ironically or not so ironically was forced to retire due to concussions.  Thus, proving my point that leading with your head puts the hit initiator at risk as much if not more than the player receiving the blow.  

I guess it was the Packers who played dirty back in the day because in the second video an exaggerated late hit by Charles Martin sidelines Bears' quarterback Jim McMahon.  These type of hits are easy to call dirty and malice can be safely assumed.  Hits like Leon Hall's on Jordy Nelson... not so easy to assume.

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Where Is The Line Drawn...?

I understand that without hitting, football wouldn't be football.  Nor is that is my goal by pointing out the Hall-Nelson hit.  There is a fine line for referees to distinguish between what is a penalty and what is just an inherent risk in playing the game.  To me, the rules seem pretty defined when looking at the rulebook excerpts written earlier in this article, but the enforcement of these rules seems to bit hit or miss (no pun intended).  Maybe we need a referee in the booth who can watch replays in slow motion to ensure proper rule enforcement? Does that cross the line? I don't know, but in my opinion, calls are being missed and inconsistently made.  What message is that sending current and future NFLers?

Looks Can Be Deceiving...

My long-time friend James Kratch is the NJ.com beat writer for the New York Giants and personally interacts with Leon Hall on a daily basis.  James pointed out they he did not believe Leon meant to hurt Jordy and I have to take his word for it.  It was wrong of me to say there was malice in Hall's actions.  My Dad always told me that when you assume it makes an ASS out of U and ME and you would think I would have learned by now.

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You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks...

Much like how I compared Malcolm Gladwell's dog fighting article to the Hall hit on Jordy, the fact that you can't teach an old dog new tricks came up in a comment by one of my high school co-captains.  Honestly you can't even blame the guy, but how do you teach a dog to not pee on the carpet? You catch them in the act, pick their little ass up and bring them outside and reward them for doing a good job when they do it the right way.  Throw a flag, push them back 15 yards and reward them by not taking any of their paycheck when they make hits with their shoulder...?

Inherent Risk...

What other industry has a 100% injury rate?  At this point, football players definitely know what they are getting themselves into.  However, I don't think that means that we can't look to other industries to make the game safer and to hold the NFL accountable to all the policies and procedures put in place to keep players safe.  I wonder what OSHA would have to say about the hit on Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley just hours after the hit that ended Jordy's night (see below).  This is a topic I researched for my capstone project while earning my masters degree at Georgetown.  If this topic interests you there is some more reading for you below, but I will end this discussion here for this article.  

Shit happens....

As mentioned earlier in the post, the viewers have the advantage of hindsight and the ability to review each play in slow motion.  Unfortunately, that isn't how the players on the field experience things and shit happens sometimes.  I still think the idea of referees in the booth to review calls may help the consistency of the penalty calling.  I wonder how much that would affect the pace of play...?

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Priorities...

When players get fined for how they wear their uniforms, the design of their cleats, the air pressure in the balls and walkie talkies, it makes you wonder why penalties that ensure safety are not enforced.  To me, that should be the # 1 priority.  

But I Thought Only Kings Wore Crowns...

A discussion of what exactly is the 'crown' of the helmet came up in the comments. I am still confused by this and from what I gather, this is more geared toward running backs lowering their head's.  The crown of the helmet is essentially the top of the helmet.  I feel like most players don't hit with this part of the helmet anyway, most likely because that would basically be a suicide mission.  However, this shouldn't matter in regard to calling an unecessary roughness penalty on the Hall hit because by definition it is any contact made by "using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily."

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By The Books...

Why write rules if they don't get enforced?  The tail end of comments I received on the post were mostly in agreement that the hit on Jordy Nelson was 'dirty' or as I have newly defined it 'unnecessary & avoidable.'  One thing I would like to note is two of the comments made below by current high school football coach and one of my former teammates Kevin Karcich.  First Kevin points out that most refs in high school only call hits in instances of helmet to helmet contact, which is great for avoiding head injuries, but as mentioned multiple time throughout this post, the rule is written much broader than that. Just like an umpire is in control of the strike zone in baseball, referees hold the power to legislate acceptable vs. unacceptable hits.

I Immediately Regret This Decision...

As seen below, Kevin and the rest of the coaches at my high school make it a point to educate the players when they make dangerous hits by lowering their heads because they are putting their own personal health at risk by doing so.  Putting your head down to make a hit will be a decision that you immediately regret, just ask Ron Burgundy.  People do get it! This comment makes me feel like the culture of football is actually headed in the right direction.

I want to thank all of my friends who participated in this discussion because without your comments episode 61 would not have been possible. All in all, I hope to see hits like the Hall-Nelson hit draw penalties in the future.  I truly believe it is in the best interest of the players and the game.

Download Episode 61 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

60 : Clean or Dirty? The Hit That Made Jordy's Ribs Say "Oh Lordy"

Last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants squared off on wild card weekend.  The Packers were victorious, but did not come out unscathed.  Jordy Nelson, who leads the Packers with 97 catches for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns, broke his ribs on a controversial hit made by Giants defensive back, Leon Hall. As you can see in the picture above and the video below, Hall lowered the crown of his helmet into Nelson's body in an attempt to break up a pass. 

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The reason I dedicated an entire episode to this hit and described it as "bush league" is because of how unnecessary I felt it was. Just as easily as Leon Hall targeted his facemask into Nelson's ribs, he could have placed his head to either side of the receiver. Had Hall taken that approach, Jordy most likely wouldn't have been injured, and Hall wouldn't have exposed himself to a concussion or spinal cord injury.  For this reason, tackling 101 always teaches athletes to NEVER lower their heads and to "see what you hit." 

For NFL players, this is their livelihood!  How would you want to be tackled knowing that your next play, game or season is what is putting food on your family's table? Look out for your brothers on the field.  You may be wearing different colored jerseys, but you all have the same goals at the end of the day.  Don't try to end your opponents career because you just might end yours in the process.(Check out an article I wrote a few years back for Jay Fraga's Knockout Project on defenseless receivers in the NFL : Fixing Concussions with Band-Aid’s: How Effective is the NFL’s Defenseless Receiver Rule? )

Ultimately, Leon Hall was not fined although the NFL rules prohibit "lowering the head and making contact with the crown or 'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of a defenseless receivers body."  In my opinion, Hall's hit meets this definition.  I feel this hit was made with the intention to injure, not just to make a tackle or break up the pass.  Although I am critical of Leon Hall's hit and I am assuming his intentions, I am also somewhat of a hypocrite because I used to be the same type of player. On every play I tried to run over any defensive back who attempted to tackle me.  When I did, my teammates got fired up, my coaches got fired up and I felt whole.  So trust me, I understand what was going through Leon Hall's head as he was in pursuit of the Packers' leading receiver. But then again, maybe neither of us are to blame. 

I was the type of running back who fought for every inch and tried to punish as many defenders as I could along the way. I don't recommend anyone do this and I believe this is partially why my career was shorter than I hoped.

I was the type of running back who fought for every inch and tried to punish as many defenders as I could along the way. I don't recommend anyone do this and I believe this is partially why my career was shorter than I hoped.

Although this may just look like a normal picture of me running the football on a Friday night in 2007, there is actually a lot more going on. Take a look at my right hand. My clenched fist is in preparation for attempting to run over the Roxbury High School outside linebacker. I succeeded, but at a cost. I separated my shoulder on this play, which led to hurting my opposite shoulder and then using my head as a weapon. I truely believe if I sat out for this shoulder injury, I never would have injured my brain to the extent I did.

Although this may just look like a normal picture of me running the football on a Friday night in 2007, there is actually a lot more going on. Take a look at my right hand. My clenched fist is in preparation for attempting to run over the Roxbury High School outside linebacker. I succeeded, but at a cost. I separated my shoulder on this play, which led to hurting my opposite shoulder and then using my head as a weapon. I truely believe if I sat out for this shoulder injury, I never would have injured my brain to the extent I did.

In 2009 a journalist by the name Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How Different are Football & Dog Fighting?  This was written in the aftermath of Michael Vick's dog fighting NFL dismissal and jail sentence.  The article talks about concussions and CTE, but also compares football to dogfighting and to be honest, I thought Gladwell was on to something then and I still do now.

 

"In a fighting dog, the quality prized above all others is the willingness to persevere even in the face of injury and pain.  A dog that will not do that is labeled a 'cur' (worthless) and abandoned.  A dog that keeps charging at it's opponents is said to possess 'gameness' and game dogs are revered." 

-  Malcolm Gladwell, How different are Football & Dog Fighting? (2009)

 

Leon Hall is a 10 year veteran in the NFL so he was undoubtedly brainwashed by the same old school mentality that I was exposed to growing up.  You know what I'm talking about, "no pain no gain," "suck it up," "don't rub it we got ice" and my favorite "you just got your bell rung."  It was the same era of glorified cheap shots, twisting ankles and gouging eyes under the scrum (I never partook in this part, but was on the receiving end plenty of times).  This is all we knew.  A part of me does understand why Leon Hall launched himself into Jordy Nelson with reckless abandon.  But I also understand that is exactly what is wrong with the game of football.  You want to save the game, fix that problem in my opinion.  No new rule changes, or equipment would be required, just a shift in the definition of toughness...or gameness.

 

Gameness - A dogs desire to please an owner at any expense to itself

- Carl Semencic , in “The World of Fighting Dogs” (1984)

 

As recently as December 1st, 2016, Gladwell brought up the dog fighting connection again in a collaborative article with sports journalist, Bill Simmons, titled Simmons vs. Gladwell: The Future of Football.  This article was written in the wake of Cam Newton's repetitive head shots and immediately after Luke Kuechly was seen sobbing after suffering a concussion on a Thursday night prime-time game against the Saints.  In my opinion, I believe Kuechly was not crying because of pain or an uncontrollable reaction to his concussion. I think, Kuechly was crying because he was silently being labeled as a 'cur' by the media, his coaches, teammates and the running dialog in his head. But you know what, I have been there too and it sucks.  

Another interesting point in The Future of Football article was a segment about a recent boxing match where one of the boxers quit in the 8th round because he didn't want to take anymore punishment. This is an example of an athlete admitting he doesn't need to be as game as a dog.  Below, I provided a video of highlights from star NFL running back, Ezekiel Elliott (Zeke).  I put this here as an example for young running backs on how they should run the ball.  In my opinion, Zeke run's the with the perfect combination of brains and braun, which hopefully will lead to a longer career.  In watching the highlights, notice that Zeke only lowers his shoulder to run over a defender when he as at the goal line, or to protect himself.  My advice to running backs is that you are supposed to run away from defenders, not at them if you can avoid it.  If you are too slow like I was, find a new position. 

After reading this post, it might be seem like I have a personal vendetta against Leon Hall.  I wholeheartedly do not, and as I mentioned, I'm sure we have a lot in common in terms up our football upbringing.  Also, as all athletes know, you turn a switch on when you step on that field.  You're not that same person on the streets.  Trust me, I get it!  Not many NFL players can say they played in the league for 10 years so Leon obviously is doing something right.  I'd love to talk to him about how he was able to stay healthy for that long in a profession with a 100% injury rate. I will assume Hall has learned to please his coaches, teammates and the media along the way.  You don't spend that much time in the league if you're not a game dog.  That being said, Gladwell points out that organizations who select for gameness have a responsibility not to abuse the trust (ex. between athlete and coach).  

 "If you have men in your charge who would jump off a cliff for you, you cannot march them to the edge of the cliff—and dogfighting fails this test."

Malcolm Gladwell, How different are Football & Dog Fighting? (2009)

Hits and plays like the Hall-Nelson hit happen every weekend all around the country.  However, the NFL and all sports organizations at all levels of play need to exercise their responsibility to protect athletes.  I am simply using this hit as one of many examples of how we can make football safer and to teach people what the real definition of toughness is.  Unfortunately I learned the definition long after my playing days, but my hope is some young buck reads this and the light bulb goes off in their head sooner rather than later.

 

"'Toughness' is deciding to engage. Committing to the first step towards improving and taking it, aggressively. This is a decision that you can make, because you always have a choice, no matter what."

- Bill Anthes, Episode 54

 
NFL players Malcolm Jenkins, Cameron Jordan, and Charles Johnson detail their own struggles with head trauma and tackle the NFL's tough guy culture, offering an important message: Want to really "man up"? Sit out when you're hurt.

WHERE CAN YOU Find more From Malcolm Gladwell?

Website | Podcast | The New Yorker | Books

Download Episode 60 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud

59 : Going From the Hardwood to Hollywood, With Standup Comedian, Sam Mushman

Sam Mushman is a former collegiate basketball player who found success in comedy during his transition to life after sports.  Sam and I go way back.  We played travel baseball together as youngsters and bonded in a Spanish class during our middle school school days before he went to Pope John high school in pursuit of his hoop dreams.  After high school Sam continued his basketball career at Wingate University in Charlotte, North Carolina.  This is where his streak of playing for 5 different head coaches in 4 years began.  Sam and I reconnected last year when he invited me to come on his Backcourt Violation radio show/podcast based in New York City.  Sam and his co-host, Vince Chang, are both former division two basketball players turned comedians.  They discuss the world of college basketball on and off the court and interview special guests.  Obviously, Sam and Vince have you laughing the entire show while keeping updated on the latest college basketball stories. You can tune in to their show every other Saturday 9-10am BBOXRADIO.com.

In Episode 59 Sam and I discuss the struggles of playing for different head coaches with different philosophies and different ideas of what role he was expected to play on the team.  Not to mention having to prove himself year in and year out.  This is a perfect example for one of the themes of the podcast, which is that you can't control what happens to you, but you can always control your response.  In addition we talk about the decision process of choosing a school to play at and the ego's role in that choice.  Sam also discusses what it's like to be a big fish in a small pond and the importance of being a realist in those situations.  He credits his parents for both encouraging him, but also helping him stay grounded.  Sam ultimately chose to play division 2 basketball, which allowed for more playing time, a more rewarding career in his opinion.  

Sam gives another piece of advice to athletes in that he encourages them to not be afraid to go against the grain because fear takes away from instinct.  Society tells you to stick with the status quo and do what others think you should do.  Both Sam and I agree that is BS.  I promise I wasn't the one to bring this up in our conversation, but Tim Tebow also faced criticism for going away from what people thought he should do when he decided to pursue a baseball career.  I encourage you to watch the video below for inspiration.  Speaking of baseball, Sam and I also talk about what could have been when he decided to drop baseball and focus on basketball full time.  Sam stated that one of his biggest regrets was the way he stepped away from baseball.  

Sam ended up transferring to Holy Family University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after his freshman season at Wingate University.  This time Sam's choice came down to what team wanted him the most, and he recommends that all athletes making this decision take that approach.  Although Sam's career at Holy Family was far from comfortable with the constant coaching changes, he did find a passion for standup comedy during this time.  Sam talks about some of his first few shows where he bombed, but he continued to persevere and improve each and every time he went back out on stage.  Sam has been doing standup for about six years now and says he has come a long way since his first few shows.  This is largely due to his persistence in being a "student of the game" just like he was as an athlete and his willingness to put himself in uncomfortable situations.  If you're comfortable, you're not growing.  Sam's transformation reminds me of a book I have recently been reading called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.  This book talks about how the decisions you make everyday are either putting you on a path toward success or failure.  It's easy to make the choice to engage in the positive actions and just as easy not to.  At first these small actions don't seem like much, but over time they compound, just like Sam has seen in his comedy career.

Sam found a passion outside of the sport he was playing, and it helped in his transition to life after sports.  Sam is more than just a basketball player and just like he is more than just a comic.  Don't let society tell you what you should and shouldn't do.  Just because their afraid doesn't mean you have to be.  I hope this episode inspires you to step out of your comfort zone and as Dr. Jarrod Spencer, Sports Psychologist put's it "Follow the Energy"(Aka, do what makes you excited to live!)! Since recording this interview I hired Sam as my speaking coach to help me get out of my comfort zone and the progress has been amazing!

Take a look at one of Sam's shows below (WARNING, EXPLICIT CONTENT).

WHERE CAN YOU FOLLOW Sam Mushman?

INSTAGRAM | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | YouTUBE

WHERE CAN YOU Follow Backcourt Violation?

iTunes | SoundCloudMixcloudINSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK

Download Episode 59 : iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud