Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller is out for the season after a hit from Houston Texans rookie D.J. Swearinger dislocated Keller’s knee and tore three ligaments in it. Swearinger’s hit, which occurred in the Dolphins’ second preseason game Sunday, was controversial, but the rookie safety said that he went low to avoid a fine for hitting Keller in the head.
“The rules say you can’t hit high so I went low and I’m sorry that happened,” Swearinger said Sunday. “I would think you’d rather have more concussions than leg injuries. Leg injury, you can’t come back from that. A concussion, you be back in a couple in a couple of weeks.”
When the NFL instituted rules against helmet-to-helmet hits, players warned that it may lead to more lower-body injuries. And while it’s impossible to judge Swearinger’s split-second intent, the play certainly didn’t look like one where he was trying to avoid a helmet-to-helmet hit. There was plenty of room to wrap Keller around the waist or tackle him high without hitting his head, as Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline argued Tuesday. But all that is really beside the point, which Swearinger failed to grasp.
No, you wouldn’t rather have more concussions than leg injuries. No, the impacts of concussions don’t just last a couple weeks. And no, going at the head shouldn’t be equally within the rules as tackling a player low. Keller is going to miss the rest of the 2013 season, and that’s a shame. It might surprise Swearinger to learn, though, that concussions can often end careers and that their effects often last a lifetime, well beyond the end of a player’s career. Knee injuries may do the same, but at least they don’t impair players cognitively for the rest of their lives. Balancing the desire to protect players’ heads and their knees isn’t easy, but it’s also not impossible: there’s an argument that the NFL needs to clarify its head-to-head contact rules and improve enforcement of them, and there’s an argument that players need to reconfigure how they play the game too.
The major problem, though, is that Swearinger’s argument is more evidence that the NFL, NCAA, and all levels of football need to do more to educate players about how they think about concussions and brain injuries. Hanging posters on the locker room wall and distributing must-read flyers to players before the season isn’t enough, not if players like Swearinger are going to continue to dismiss the importance of their brains and those of other players, and not considering the NFL and NCAA in particular have more to do to make up for years of ignoring and potentially obscuring the true dangers of concussions.
That starts at lower levels, where kids are still learning the game and need to learn how to play it in a way that minimizes the risk of both suffering and inflicting concussions. The NFL, to its credit, has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and youth and high school federations to teach those dangers. But it needs to do more, particularly for current players like Swearinger and Marvin Jones and countless others who didn’t receive that education coming up through the football ranks. Teaching young players like Swearinger the actual dangers of concussions instead of teaching them to hit low in order to avoid fines and penalties would be a good start.