Jack Tame: Lethal weapons debase glory on playing field

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The match was in overtime. His quarterback called the play. And before 50,000 fans, Sidney Rice started sprinting.

He ran the right flank for the first few steps, darting past a line of defenders, before cutting sharply to his left and running for the corner on a straight, diagonal line.

Metres from the end zone, dreadlocks poking from under his helmet, Rice looked back to his quarterback. The throw was precise and flat, zipping through the air with the sharp end to Rice's sternum. He held it in gloved hands and began ducking for the line, momentum carrying him towards a glorious match-winner.

Then Sidney Rice was levelled.

It was hard to watch, live. His head took the hit; his body went limp and folded over. The ball spilled and bounced across the turf. As the opposition players scrambled for possession, Rice lay motionless with his arms limp at his sides.

The commentators turned almost immediately to the important issue at hand. Was the touchdown completed? Did Rice spill the ball first? Who cares if he's breathing: did Rice win the game?

After minutes of checks, with the help of teammates and doctors, he staggered to his feet and ambled to the sideline, his helmet under his arm. Clearly, Rice was dazed and groggy, but he'd won the game for his team. Victory is wonderful medicine, even if its effects soon wane.

Don't mistake me; I love sport. I love physical sport. I played rugby (poorly, mind) for more than a decade, and before I properly understood the game, fancied myself a fair judge of American football.

"They're wusses," I'd say of NFL players.

"Wimps."

"Jessies."

"Let's see them without helmets and pads."

But across the northern autumn, I've come to appreciate American football in a different light.

It's a very different game from our national sport with a different level of violence. Rugby is gritty and rough, coaches train kids to tackle "cheek to cheek". Football is brutal and merciless. Helmets are weapons. Players tackle with their heads.

And, with the suicide of NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher, some who knew him have suggested this week that after a lifetime of making such tackles, a head injury could have been behind his death.

Last weekend, with his 3-month old daughter nearby, Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend before driving to his training ground and killing himself.

He was the fifth NFL player to die by suicide in the past year.

Belcher's death pre-empted the release of a traumatic head-injury study, published a few days later in the journal, Brain.

Of 85 dead sportsmen and soldiers, the study reports 80 per cent showed signs of chronic brain injury. The symptoms for the degenerative condition include memory loss, depression and dementia.

Fifty of the dead men with evidence of chronic brain damage were former American football players. Several died by their own hand.

American football is a great sport; war in palatable, digestible form. Highly tactical and precise, it relies on acute planning and execution while still allowing for brilliant individual spontaneity.

And though the game has won my affections, I stand by my earlier judgment.

It's time for the helmets, at least, to go.

Perhaps American football could learn from rugby and adopt soft-style protective headgear instead. Not because its players are wusses or wimps, but because the very tool used to prevent traumatic brain injuries is causing them.

- Herald on Sunday

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