It is a question with no right answer. Seemingly every day, certainly every week, we now talk about it: How do you legislate contact in the ultimate contact sport?
In the heat of the moment, on Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays, there is one answer. As Andrew Wilson walked off the field against Toledo, kicked out of the game for a hit that wasn't as brutal as many others we saw the very same weekend, I thought I had an answer. I thought the rules were stupid. So did Missouri's players I talked to.
"Much respect first off to the officials and whoever makes the rules, but they're asking us to make a split second decision to duck our head and hit a guy below the waist," linebacker Darvin Ruise told me. "I mean, you're kind of asking us to do the impossible. I mean, you want us to come up under the ground and hit him? I mean, you got to make a decision to make that tackle and make that play. It's so hard to make that decision, you're in the war zone. I don't know, you're asking us to do that? It's quite impossible for somebody who's breaking on a three-step drop and a slant is coming your way to really sit down and say, 'Okay, let me tackle him right.' You know, it's football and it's a physical sport."
"Rules like that kind of take away football," said co-captain L'Damian Washington said. "That could lose a game for a team at some time."
Yep. The rule was dumb. I mean, you're talking about wins and losses. You're talking about the difference in a bowl game and a losing season. Multi-million dollar jobs are at stake.
That thought was reinforced last Saturday as I watched the biggest game in college football. Alabama defensive back Haha Clinton-Dix went for an interception. As he stretched his arms out, eyes on the ball, Clinton-Dix collided with a Texas A&M receiver. The contact was high, but Clinton-Dix wasn't even looking at the opposing player. He was trying to intercept the pass.
Targeting. Fifteen yards. Ejection.
The officials overturned the decision on replay, allowing Clinton-Dix, an all-American, back in the game. But the 15 yards stood. What if that 15 yards had been the difference between the Crimson Tide winning and the Aggies winning? That doesn't just change a game. That changes the national title race. You just can't do that. Right?
Ask Damon Janes' parents if they feel that way.
Janes, a 16-year-old running back at Brocton Central (NY) High School, died Monday. Janes took a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game on Friday night. He stumbled to the sideline and collapsed. Janes was rushed to a Buffalo hospital, but never regained consciousness.
Wins and losses? Who gives a damn? No number of crystal footballs, no Lombardi trophy, and certainly no run-of-the-mill win under the Friday night lights are worth a 16-year-old kid's life.
My oldest son has wanted to play football for about five years now. We told him he had to wait until he was in high school. I'd talked to enough people involved with youth football to believe the risk of injury outweighed the reward of letting him have a two- or three-year head start on his football career.
He's a sophomore now, 16, the same age as Damon Janes. He is playing both varsity and junior varsity for Rock Bridge. His mom is still somewhat nervous about it. I'll be honest, I'm really not. It doesn't cross my mind that he's going to be a victim of what we all assume are very long odds. Maybe it should, I don't know.
I know football is a contact sport. I know those that play it are aware of that fact. I also know none of them think it's ever going to happen to them. I'm sure Damon Janes didn't.
How safe is too safe? How much can you change the game without ruining the game? Is the game--hell, is any game--worth losing your mental faculties? Or the ability to walk? Or your life?
Sometimes, there is no right answer. Sometimes, all we've got is to know we don't know and to hope we never have to encounter the worst-case scenario.