Save football? Start with the kids

Where this Chris Borland story matters most is in the games that aren't on TV -- the Pop Warner games, the high school games, the games in which increasingly concerned parents may increasingly feel inclined to not let their children play. If you have a 9-year-old son asking whether he can play football and you see a 24-year-old linebacker retire from the NFL after one year due to concussion concerns, you're going to put those two things together in your head. There's no way around it.

But this doesn't have to be an existential crisis for football. It doesn't have to be a shouting match between intractable factions of people who hate the game and people who love it. The Borland story can have a far deeper, more real impact. We shouldn't just talk about whether football can (or should) survive. We should talk about how to make it better.

"The injury to the head is what's scaring everybody, and it should be scaring you, but you can teach not to do that," former New York Giants tight end Howard Cross said during a phone interview Tuesday. "The problem is, the parents that are teaching it, a lot of them didn't play or they have an inflated view of what playing is. They believe in '3 yards and a cloud of dust, get these kids in shape, find out who likes contact.' Instead of teaching them techniques and what they're trying to achieve, they think they have to beat the kids up, find out how tough they are.

"The game is moving toward a more athletic game, a thinking man's game instead of a tough-guy game. The parents coaching youth sports don't understand that movement."

Cross has twin 13-year-olds -- one boy and one girl -- and he's deeply involved in the youth sports scene in Paramus, New Jersey. He's speaking firsthand about things he sees routinely. It needs to be noted here that he's generalizing, and that no one is suggesting Borland or any other specific current NFL player was poorly coached as a kid. But the point is a critical one: If there's a present and increasing concern over the safety of this game, then the proper way to handle that is to address it at the root level.

"The safety of the game can be taught from the ground up," Cross said. "Teach safety; don't teach toughness. They're going to grow up to be tough. Teach the game, teach them to have fun with the game, and they won't go for the knockout shot. They may know how to separate the man from the ball, but they're not going to be trying to knock the guy out when they do it. That's the teaching we're missing."

Cross cited Pete Carroll's well-publicized Seattle Seahawks tackling video -- a 20-minute tutorial narrated by Carroll himself about the way the Seahawks teach and practice tackling -- which purports to take players' heads out of the tackling process altogether. It includes clips of rugby players, who play without helmets and therefore must find technique-based ways to avoid head trauma, and shows examples of Seahawks players using what Carroll calls "shoulder leverage tackling" that targets ball carriers' hips and emphasizes correct technique. Cross said that he saw Giants coaches showing similar videos last year at training camp to teach their pass-rushers how to sack quarterbacks without drawing a flag. Surely, this is going on with other teams as well.

The biggest complaint you hear from players about the NFL's new safety rules is that they fly in the face of what the players have been taught their whole lives about how to play. These new rules aren't going anywhere, and they're not going to get any less lenient. So the way to handle in the short term is to relearn, to whatever extent you can, at the NFL level. The way for the game to handle it long-term is to teach differently at the very beginning.

"Then all the parents can take a deep breath," Cross said. "The game's never going to be safe. It just isn't. But neither is driving your car or crossing the street in New York. You just have to know the right way to do it to make it as safe as possible. So just teach that this is how it's going to be played from now on."

The other choice is one that the NFL, the game of football and anyone who really loves it doesn't want to contemplate.