At this point, you’ve probably seen the demolishing hit South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, one of college football’s best players, laid on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Clowney, who would be a top five pick in the NFL Draft this year if only an arbitrary age limit didn’t force him to remain in college for another season, burst off the line and laid waste to Davis almost immediately, causing Davis to fumble and sending his helmet 10 yards backward in the process:
That hit, in short, is absolute football perfection, a combination of size, speed, strength, and total athletic dominance that, when brought together in one perfect moment, leads to the type of play that leaves fans, coaches, teammates, opponents, and announcers alike stunned beyond comprehension. It was clean, it was smart, it was beautiful. The two seconds between the snap of the ball and Clowney’s devastation were football at its absolute purest, as Dave Kindred pointed out at Sports On Earth:
I have no use for football’s jack-‘em-up fetish. I loathe the mentality that cheers a blindside block on a helpless defender whose eyes are locked on a kick returner. I have seen cheap shots and I have seen Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair. But what Jadeveon Clowney did to Vincent Smith was none of that. The old Michigan State coach, Duffy Daugherty, once said, “Football’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport.” By that definition, Clowney’s tackle was as pure a demonstration of the game’s truest nature as we’re likely to see.
The very fact that the hit was a “pure demonstration” football’s “truest nature,” though, illustrates exactly what is so scary about the future of football: we’ve spent the last year focused on the threat concussions pose to the future of the game, but the real threat may be the game itself, the risk routine hits even less powerful than Clowney’s pose to the brains of the young men who step on the field each weekend. That, as Bloomberg’s Jonathan Mahler argued last month, “Football doesn’t have a concussion problem. It has an existential one.”
Clowney’s hit didn’t cause a concussion, and so it seems just a routine part of the game. But focusing on concussions as the major source of brain injuries in football, as Mahler argued, makes us think the problem can be fixed relatively easily. It makes it seem as if improving how we monitor concussions when they happen and eliminating head-to-head hits will reduce the amount of concussions and thus mitigate the risk of long-term brain trauma for the athletes who take the field. But recent research shows that it doesn’t necessarily take a career full of concussions to lead to the long-term cognitive problems many football players experience after retirement. Rather, chronic traumatic encepholopathy, dementia, depression, and other serious cognitive damage can result from the constant repetition of seemingly minor hits to the head — the kind that happen hundreds of times every game from the NFL level down to youth football.
“Calling the head-injury crisis a concussion crisis made it sound as if it stemmed from how the game is played, not from the game itself,” Mahler continued. It doesn’t take a concussion to damage the brain. It doesn’t even take a hit as devastating as Clowney’s. The routine plays, the beautiful plays, the most purely football plays — they all could be causing brain damage too. That’s a reality nobody wants to acknowledge, because if football’s problem is indeed existential, if the game doesn’t have a crisis but is the crisis, the future of football is in more peril than anyone thinks.