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My View: Just a game? Rethinking football collisions

By Ed Smith

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 5:10 p.m. MST

It’s been nearly 15 years, but I wonder if former BYU wide receiver Kaipo McGuire’s ears are still ringing. Were it not for the thousands of times “The Hit” has been viewed on YouTube, fan sites and highlight reels, I wonder if he would even remember what happened after Mario Smith knocked the ball and his senses loose in the 1997 Cotton Bowl game between BYU and Kansas State.

It’s clear from the film footage that McGuire had no idea as to where he was or why he was there as he was helped from the field, post collision. Mention the hit to BYU fans and they still wince when you say the name, "Kaipo McGuire." The image is visceral, but I’ll bet you Google it if you read this.

Football fans marvel at incredible catches, scrambling ballets of fullbacks run amok, and last-gasp heroics of quarterbacks heaving Hail Mary passes, but there’s nothing like a bone-breaking, helmet-launching stick by a linebacker or free safety to make the top 10 plays list on "SportsCenter." Grace is amazing, but gruesome glues us to the game.

Recent articles in sports publications, notably Sports Illustrated, have dealt with the ongoing and seemingly increasing health crises arising from concussions due to violent collisions in America’s game. Two additional high-profile BYU players, Jim McMahon and Steve Young, are often cited when referencing the ongoing problem of hits to the helmet.

On one hand, we are enthralled with this game of high-energy violence. The common abdication is that “it’s just part of the game.” Certainly the owners, coaches and players are aware of dangers to which they signed on, aren’t they? We assume they are.

Equipment has evolved with the speed and kinetics on the field. But, has it kept pace with bigger, faster and stronger participants and the high-priced encouragement to use their increased abilities as aggressively as possible? Is the “bounty-hunter” mentality a reflection of a win-at-all-costs policy on the part of some teams and players, or is it a reaction to a fan base that cringes at what it secretly craves?

On the other hand, money and mayhem can be seductive partners. For the right price, almost anything can be endured, embraced and then addicted. As long as somebody else is in the arena, we will be happy to buy tickets.

It is a terrific game. The finesse, strategy and raw physicality of combat are compelling. The brotherhood of battle, community involvement, unity and rivalry is contagious, but — unmasked of all platitudes — football is, at its heart, still a game of controlled warfare. What we abhor in faraway lands filled with politics and prejudice, we happily embrace in our backyards, man caves and civic centers. What appalls us in enormous taxpayer dollars, we call entertainment when the color on the helmet is green and gold instead of olive drab.

Maybe it’s just a healthy way to release the stress of a world which is becoming increasingly confusing, economically challenging and morally diverse. Maybe sitting on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon watching others do what we wish we could and cannot is a foray into fantasy that relieves the need to be violent ourselves. Is it fantasy or reality?

Ask McGuire if he can still remember what hit him 15 years ago.

While a wide receiver lies on a gurney listening to the staccato pinging in the MRI tube, analysts try to determine the intent of the free safety who laid out his opponent. Was the contact helmet to helmet? Was any attempt made to avoid the blow? Is there a prior history in the player’s file indicating a pattern of behavior? Was there team incentive or involvement?

The answer to these questions, with the benefit of video replay, results in fines and suspensions and endless legal ramifications. What happens on the field, to the roars and groans of rabid fans and untold numbers of multimedia onlookers, however, occurs at the speed of thought between the actual combatants. The results can be lifelong and life-altering and will quickly be yesterday’s news to most of us.

To those of us who watch, the game is like going to the movies. No one ever dies unless the screenwriter says so. But, in real life, the MRI pings and blips, and life ebbs and flows in real time, meting out consequences we neither feel nor see. We just watch the highlights on "SportsCenter" and bemoan the loss of one of our fantasy football units.

Should football, hockey, soccer, boxing or NASCAR be banned? Arguably not, but our lust for and anticipation of disaster seems insatiably titillating, and our willingness to pay for the chance to see it up close and personal excises a portion of gentility from our collective souls.

In the end, we get what we are willing to pay for. We cast our most effective ballots with our checkbooks. It says volumes about who we really are and about whom we are becoming.

An unabashed fan of outdoor humorist Patrick F. McManus, Ed Smith is a freelance writer, golfer and fly fisherman. He resides in West Bountiful.

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