Two weeks ago, Miami Dolphins’ tight end Dustin Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL in a helmet-to-knee collision.  In a sport troubled by class-action lawsuits and enduring safety concerns, Keller’s injury has stirred up yet another debate about where the NFL should draw the line on “legal” contact.
But long before the knee made headlines, the head dominated discussions of legality.  Football has already made significant progress on reducing contact to the head.  Commissioner Roger Goodell has not hesitated to impose fines and suspensions for head-to-head contact, and some of the biggest names in football have been pinned up as the guilty lawbreakers.  In 2010 alone, linebacker James Harrison was fined a total of $125,000 for dangerous tackles, including $75,000 for a hit on wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi.  Last year, safety Ed Reed was penalized $21,000 for head-to-head contact with wide receiver Deion Branch.  Goodell has increased the frequency and amount of such fines, which have become the standard response to violent collisions.  There is little tolerance for compromise or appeal.  Simply brushing the quarterback’s helmet with your hand is enough to warrant a roughing-the-passer penalty.  Getting under the chinstrap of a slanting wide-receiver can land you on the bench.
The NFL itself has landed in court, and it must answer to the plaintiffs screaming foul on the league’s failure to protect the head.  There are studies linking concussions to dementia, suicide and depression.  The injuries can even be fatal— just last week, a lawsuit was filed in connection with a fatal head injury of a Frostburg State University player.  The accusations are getting more and more severe.
Football had no choice but to reform, and the new policies are working to a certain degree.  In camps and practices, players are training themselves not to hit high.  But with every action comes an equal and opposite reaction.  If players are not hitting high, they are hitting low.  Hitting low does not mean you are avoiding injury – it just means you are avoiding head injuries. All the parts below – including the knees – remain legal tackling targets.
Perhaps the new rules are not working the way that Goodell has intended them to.  The next football controversy is unraveling right before our eyes, as Keller’s alphabet soup of an injury is turning into the next poster child for illegal football contact.  Several NFL veterans have spoken out on the issue.  In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, tight end Tony Gonzalez was adamant in his criticism of D.J. Swearinger, the Houston safety who made the tackle on Keller: “That was ridiculous on his part.  It should be a fineable offense.  That’s just not part of football – hitting a defenseless player in his knee, that’s something we all dread as players.  That’s my nightmare.”
Over the next few days, football analysts across the media – including ESPN’s Keyshawn Johnson, MikeDitka, and Tom Jackson – came to Gonzalez’s defense.
So will knees be the next nightmare for the NFL?  Will it be the next series of lawsuits?  Should hits to the knee be illegal?  There is some merit to these claims.  Knee injuries are brutal.  They could set players out for an entire season and potentially end their careers.  Last season, the likes of Robert Griffin III, Dwayne Bowe, Heath Miller and Fred Jackson sustained season-ending knee injuries.
The side-effects may not be as sensational as suicide or dementia, but they are still tragic.  If a player tears ligaments in his knee, he cannot walk, play football or earn his paycheck.  He gets put on injured reserve and may even get cut from the team and lose his job.  NFL players make a living with their legs.  Without them, they cannot survive the profession.
But are knee injuries really worse than concussions and head trauma?   Offensive players are asking to be hit up high, away from all of those precious tendons in their lower body. “Hit me in the head,” Gonzalez says defiantly.  He has a point.  A player can sustain a concussion, sit on the bench for a few weeks, pass the doctor’s examination and be back on the field a short time later.  Leg injuries do not work the same way.  Keller is out indefinitely.  RGIII is still questionable for the season opener.  Even freak-of-nature Adrian Peterson’s nine-month recovery is nothing short of a miracle.
Knees are just as sacred as anything above the neck. But as new NFL rules encourage players to tackle low, more knee injuries will occur.  There will be more complaints, more agonizing injury videos and more public outcry.  Perhaps a few new lawsuits will be filed.  It may take a few years, but the area of legal contact will gradually shrink even further, and helmet-to-knee hits will be the next guilty culprits.
Nick Fedyk is a senior in the College. MORE THAN A GAME appears every Friday.

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