T.J. Ward: Low for hitting low? [Commentary]

Three Sundays ago, during the New England Patriots' football game against the Cleveland Browns, the collective heart of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., stopped: In the middle of the third quarter, after tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a pass for twenty-one yards, Cleveland defender T.J. Ward dove in an attempt to bring Mr. Gronkowski down. Mr. Ward's helmet subsequently hit Mr. Gronkowski's knee, leading Mr. Gronkowski, once down, to clutch his knee in agony — it was immediately obvious that he was injured.

The public later found out that Mr. Gronkowski had injured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) as well as his medial collateral ligament (MCL). ACL injuries have plagued the NFL as of late, with Mr. Gronkowski being the latest of big name players to fall victim: Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was injured during training camp; Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller tore it during the preseason; St. Louis rams quarterback Sam Bradford went down five games into the season. And Monday night, Joe Flacco sprained his MCL, though it won't prevent him from playing in today's game against the Patriots.

Most NFL fans have already faced the reality that ACL injuries mean that the player is out for at least the rest of the season, and according to medical analyst Dave Siebert, "recoveries [from ACL injuries] that exceed 12 months are still not uncommon." Patriots fans fear that Mr. Gronkowski will not be ready for the start of the 2014 season, which is even more ill timed considering he missed the first six weeks of the current season after numerous back and forearm surgeries.

The NFL's recent spike in ACL injuries is frustrating for fans that defend football against those who claim that the sport is too dangerous. Nobody wants to see his or her favorite player — or any player, for that matter — hurt, and fans especially do not want to learn that players will be out with a preventable injury for an extended amount of time.

But are ACL injuries really preventable? With the rules that the NFL has implemented recently barring defenders from any hits to the head, defenders have no other option but to hit low. Mr. Ward even admitted after the game that the only reason he hit Mr. Gronkowski low is because of these rules: "It's kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place. ... It's a decision you have to make, but you have to follow the rules at the same time," Mr. Ward told ESPN.

The NFL's constant warnings, penalties and fines on players have influenced Mr. Ward's decision. Mr. Ward has been fined numerous times throughout his NFL career for hits that have been too high and too hard; he was not fined for the clean hit on Mr. Gronkowski.

These penalties and fines have been imposed in order to protect players from concussions and similar injuries, after many players and families have sought compensation from the NFL for players' disabilities relating to head damage. Such is the case of Mike Webster.

Mike Webster played in the NFL as a center for 17 seasons, most of them with the four-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers team of the 1970s and '80s. Mr. Webster dedicated his life to football, quite literally: After retiring at the age of 40 and suffering numerous ailments for a decade, he died in 2002, at the too young age of 50. Doctors diagnosed him posthumously with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease; he was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with such a disease.

Mr. Webster died because he played too much football.

Since Mr. Webster's death, his estate sued the National Football League for disability payments — the court ruled that the league's retirement plan must pay benefits for players whose disabilities began while they were still in the NFL. Perhaps this sparked some of the newer rules regarding high hits; the NFL does not want to be held liable for more disability payments. When it comes down to it, after all, the NFL is only a business, and businesses do not want to spend more money than they need to.

However, one thing is for certain: It is much better to miss a season of football due to an injured ACL and be able to come back strong than take repeated injuries to the head and live the rest of your life disabled.

Gronk will hopefully be on track to return by next September. Also next September, we commemorate the 12th anniversary of Mike Webster's death. Though Gronk may be out for the rest of the season, I'm sure he's still lucky that hit didn't take years off his life.

Miles Greenspoon is a Pikesville native attending Columbia University. His email is milesgreenspoon@gmail.com.

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