Football fans all over the nation, indeed just folks period, were shocked and saddened last week upon hearing about the devastating head injury suffered by Tennessee State University linebacker Christion Abercrombie. Subsequently there have been stories in almost every major newspaper and on both broadcast and cable news programs. 

Prayer vigils have been held, and a wave of emails and online good wishes have come forward. At press time he remained in critical condition, but there were some small encouraging signs. TSU head coach Rod Reed on his radio show last week was very somber as he described the play, saying there was nothing illegal that occurred on the part of Vanderbilt. “It was just a routine football play,” Reed said.

Sadly, this incident reinforces the harsh reality of football. Like auto racing, those who participate in the sport recognize that on any single play or at any moment something bad, even shattering and life altering, can happen. When you have extremely physically gifted athletes colliding into each other with the speed and ferocity of football players, the wonder is there aren’t more injuries.

This is also why football’s ultimate survival and popularity hinges on those in charge doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its participants. Even if that sometimes results in rule changes that are hard for officials to adjudicate, and run counter to past traditions that glorified blind side hits and violent tackles that sometimes left players unsure where they were on the field.

There is a degree of violence in football that will always be there unless the NFL, colleges and high schools suddenly shift to flag or two hand touch, something that would instantly end its reign atop the sporting world. Folks might not want to admit it, but it’s the violence that’s made the NFL number one, along with gambling and the rise of fantasy sports and video games. 

However the players have paid the price for that. While researchers are still trying to determine the exact link between football and brain damage or head trauma, it is clear there is SOME connection. No one can deny the physical damage done to knees, backs or other parts of the body. Just see how gingerly veteran linemen walk around, or how much difficulty some running backs have making simple movements and the impact of playing football from youth through adulthood is obvious.

This is not a call for the elimination of the sport. But it is a recognition that attempts at making the game safer are not a sign of a society going soft. Rather they are necessary measures to make a violent and brutal sport less dangerous, and make certain it has long term viability and visibility among future generations.