MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (Jan. 17, 2018) — Minnesota Vikings wide-out Stefon Diggs may go on to do many more spectacular things during his career but, for now, his miraculous walk-off touchdown to win last weekend’s playoff game vs. the New Orleans Saints remains his claim to fame. However, let’s widen the scope on this play and connect a few dots. In so doing we link the signature moment of the 2018 playoffs to the league’s most pressing issue.
Look at the picture that accompanies this essay (or watch the video of the play here) and examine with me what New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams (43 in white) was thinking as time expired.
We should first take a moment to pity Mr. Williams, a rookie, whose coaches consigned him to a god-awful position — “on an island,” as they say, by obliging him to defend half the field when the situation clearly called for the Mother of All Prevent Defenses. Even in this highly vulnerable position, however, all Williams needed to do was play center field on this play, keep Mr. Diggs in front of him, eventually wrap him up and wait for help, or bring him to the ground, ideally in the field of play, though even an eventual shove out of bounds would have sufficed.
Instead, Williams did what most American footballers tend to do in the 21st century: He went for the “spectacle hit.” Head first.
Competitively, as we’ve seen, the results were disastrous. Williams even managed to compound his misfortune, somewhat comically, by whiffing on Diggs entirely then taking out his own teammate — the only guy in a viable position to chase down the wide receiver when the ball was caught. What’s more, according to rules taking effect for the 2018 regular season, even the headfirst attempt should/would draw a 15-yard personal foul penalty. However, if we step back, we see here yet another consequence of football’s troubling evolution on the defensive side of scrimmage. Despite a litany of league-wide initiatives to curb headfirst tackling — the result of mounting evidence linking repeated football-related head trauma to brain injury (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) — the NFL’s hit culture remains firmly in place. Even in a situation like Williams’, where old fashioned, rugby-style tackling was called for, the defender acted on the instinct that football today engenders.
NFL football in the here and now is plenty good fun, the most popular and culturally dominant game in 21st century North America. Minnesota’s unlikely victory (indeed, three of the four games contested over the weekend) showcased exactly why this is so. NFL games can be spectacularly entertaining.
Yet it would be a stretch to consider the game of professional football “perfected”. Any sport played at the elite level exists as a moving target, a work in evolutionary progress because the salient factors affecting that evolution — rules, tactics, equipment, geography, fashion, even the size and skill of the players involved — also shift and evolve. All this transforms the way a game is played over the course of time, sometimes by design, sometimes organically without much guidance at all.
In 2018, we can add “culture” and “the legal process” to this list of salient change-agents. People took notice when former NFL player Ed Cunningham resigned from his position of ESPN football analyst — on account of the game’s growing concussion dilemma — but, in truth, we’ve become somewhat inured to stories like this because nearly every week brings a new one: be it evidence that concussions sustained in pee wee football can lead to adult brain trauma, or steps the Canadian Football League has taken to reduce the volume of dangerous hits.
The idea that former Patriots tight end and convicted murder suspect Aaron Hernandez might have committed his violent crimes while experiencing advanced-stage CTE adds to this potent mix the elements of irony and the macabre. Did you know that a class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of current and former NCAA student-athletes, remains pending before Judge John Z. Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois? Me neither. Class actions have their own online portals these days, naturally. Visit this one and be prepared for the following greeting: “Welcome to the NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation Website.”
Bit by bit, the forces of change would appear to be gathering over football, as they have intermittently but more or less continuously for more than a century. No game, it seems to me, has evolved so far, so quickly or so dangerously.