- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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The NFL's no-harm, no-foul, $765 million settlement with retired players admits no liability and places no blame. For those looking for the league to be brought to its knees -- or at least forced to show even the smallest measure of contrition -- it's an unsatisfactory conclusion. Money will be paid, amends will be made and research will be funded. Now back to the game.
Within that game, the big issue still hangs out there: How can red-blooded American football continue to be red-blooded American football -- a game predicated on size, speed and violent collisions -- while simultaneously incorporating meaningful changes that increase the safety of its participants?
It's easy to be flippant and say it's not possible. Because it might not be possible. We've already seen the frustrations of fans, coaches and even players when it comes to rule changes intended to reduce the number and severity of blows to the head. Any self-respecting official is going to lean toward caution when it comes to throwing the flag these days; better to be considered overly protective than to watch someone be carted off with a flag in your pocket.
And this preseason has seen the rise of the inevitable equal-but-opposite. You take away blows to the head? Fine, then -- you better watch your knees.
The issue dives deep into the roots of the game. On a practical level, on the practice fields of American high schools and colleges, what does a post-settlement world look like?
How do you teach kids how to hit without hitting? How do you teach aggression the right way? It's inevitable -- and understood -- that kids will hit the wrong way as they learn how to do it the right way.
It's like a prompt for a particularly vexing essay question: How do you coach a contact sport without emphasizing contact?
The NFL might not have had to admit liability, but the high school football coach who inadvertently puts a kid in position to take a debilitating hit might not have the lawyers and the checkbook to do the same.
Central Florida coach George O'Leary used his radio show earlier this week to issue a blanket condemnation of today's youth. He called the mandated restrictions on hitting detrimental to the game and the toughness of those who play it.
"There is no question kids today are softer than kids in the past, in my mind," O'Leary said. "I think it comes from too much parental babying. … The game is about contact. You can try to hide it any way you want, but you got to hit people whether you're blocking or tackling." Granted, O'Leary might come across sounding like an old man pining for better days -- and his track record on this topic is more than a little muddied -- but his concerns regarding hitting are valid. Coaches face this issue every day, and the visions of thousands of brain-addled former players hang like a cloud over games and practices everywhere. The smart high school and college coaches have altered tackling drills to emphasize form rather than ferocity. Instead of running head starts, drills take place in confined areas, with tacklers taking one or two steps before making contact.
Profound changes have taken place in the way the game is coached. Claims of ignorance -- essentially, plausible claims of ignorance are at the root of the NFL's no-fault settlement -- no longer work.
Derek Sheely, a 22-year-old fullback from Division III Frostburg State, died after suffering two concussions in August 2011 after participating in drills his family's wrongful-death lawsuit described as "gladiatorial." Sheely told an assistant coach he had a headache, walked off the field, fell and lapsed into a coma. He never woke up.
There is hope. These types of drills -- often conducted for the amusement of the coaches -- are gradually being cleared out of the system. With the amount of evidence available in 2013, there is no way a coach could claim he had no idea of the repercussions of a drill like the Oklahoma Drill, which is mentioned by name in the Sheely family lawsuit. The drill, which one of my high school coaches called "Machine Gun," consists of two alternating lines of players running full speed and helmet first into another player who is, for lack of a better term, It. This is the type of drill that coaches used to use as a means of toughening players up, or teaching them to hit, or weeding out the weak.
At Frostburg State, there's a chance it led directly to Sheely's death. Knowing what we know now, it's hard to believe coaches could even conceive of putting players through that drill. But undoubtedly and unfortunately, there are still some out there.
Last week I was speaking with John Beam, a hugely successful former high school coach in Oakland, Calif., who now coaches at Laney Community College. He was talking about how the game is changing and how coaches have no choice but to change along with it. Fighting the new reality is both futile and wrong. During a practice, one of Beam's coaches asked him, "Why are we giving them so many water breaks?"
Beam phrased his answer in the form of a question. The five words he spoke remain every bit as relevant now as they were before a settlement was even discussed. They reflect the lack of certainty everyone in the game shares as they face the new reality.
Those words were simple and unanswerable:
"What happens if we don't?"
Even as the NFL settles with former players, the big issue still hangs out there: How can American football continue to be American football -- a game predicated on size, speed and violent collisions -- while simultaneously incorporating meaningful changes that increase the safety of participants?