Helmet-to-helmet hits and their devastating effects are back in the CFL spotlight but league president Michael Copeland doesn’t believe they are becoming an epidemic.
Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly took a nasty hit to the back of his head from Toronto rookie defensive lineman Cleyon Laing in the Argonauts 34-22 win Saturday night. Although appearing wobbly upon getting up, Reilly remained in the contest after being evaluated by Eskimos medical staff.
On the next play, Reilly dropped the direct snap but recovered and threw a 17-yard TD strike to Shamawd Chambers. When he came to the sidelines, Reilly was re-evaluated and replaced by veteran backup Kerry Joseph.
On Sunday, the Eskimos confirmed Reilly had suffered a concussion and he’s out indefinitely. That leaves Hamilton’s Henry Burris, 38, the lone CFL starter still standing.
The six-foot-three, 280-pound Laing was flagged for his hit and the Edmonton native is expected to be fined this week by the CFL.
It’s an approach, Copeland says, that’s working.
“Concussions, according to our records, are flat this year relative to last and man-games lost to concussions are down, which I think speaks to better concussion management,” he said. “I think it’s having an affect because when we talk to our officials, they tell us they see more players changing the way they tackle and that the culture among players is changing.
“You’re going to see certain plays happen and again they’re fairly high profile. But there’s many things people necessarily don’t see that I think speak to the success of what we’ve been doing.”
On Monday, Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed left it up to the CFL to assess the Laing hit.
“I truly believe we don’t want to see our players exposed to those kinds of hits,” he said. “I trust the (league’s) decision-making process that they’re going to go through in making an assessment as to the severity of that hit and the decision they’ll come down with.”
While the 2013 campaign has been tough on CFL quarterbacks, Montreal’s Anthony Calvillo is the only other starter out with a concussion. He was injured in a game in August when his head struck the Mosaic Stadium turf following a legal hit by Saskatchewan defensive end Ricky Foley.
But the issue of helmet-to-helmet hits is one the league has had to face often this season.
On Sept. 18, Saskatchewan Roughriders safety Tyron Brackenridge was fined by for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Toronto’s Chad Kackert that left the running back with a concussion. Roughly a month earlier, Brackenridge was involved in a helmet-to-helmet collision with Montreal’s Brandon London that left the Alouettes receiver concussed but Brackenridge wasn’t fined for the hit.
However, the league slapped Hamilton defensive back Dee Webb with an undisclosed fine for hitting B.C. Lions receiver Marco Iannuzzi in the head on a kickoff in the Tiger-Cats’ 37-29 win Sept. 7. Iannuzzi suffered a concussion on the play.
Webb was also fined last year for a hit on Iannuzzi that left the Lions’ player with a concussion.
And Saskatchewan defensive lineman Levi Steinhauer was fined Aug. 1 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Hamilton kick-returner Lindsey Lamar in the Riders’ 32-20 win in Guelph, Ont., on July 27.
Mike Morreale, a former CFL slotback now heading up the CFL Players’ Association, doesn’t believe head injuries are on the rise in the league. However, he said public awareness about the issue of concussions makes it seem that way.
“My gut feeling is because of the awareness level and increase in terms of camera angles, we’re now becoming more and more aware of it and it looks like it’s happening more and more often,” he said. “I also think there’s truth that the bigger, stronger and faster these guys are and the increase in protection levels regarding the equipment they wear would allow someone to play more aggressively as well.”
Often, the CFL fines a player for a helmet-to-helmet hit but Copeland said the league can issue a suspension if warranted. However, Copeland feels hitting offenders in the wallet is a suitable punishment.
“Judging by the reaction of players when they get fined, it’s certainly working,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s having an effect and changing the way the guys think and I believe that’s what’s causing the change in culture and mechanics on the field.
“The objective of discipline is to change behaviour and at the point we see it’s not having an affect that’s when we have to take a look at the size of our penalties . . . Should we feel the need to continue to increase them we’ll do that. It’s a conversation we have with the (CFL Players’ Association) and we don’t think we’re there yet but it’s not a place we’re afraid to go if we feel we have to.”
Morreale said the CFLPA has been very active in educating players on the dangers of helmet-to-helmet hits but admits the union faces a stiff challenge trying to get some of their constituents to change how they play the game.
“In some cases you have to change 20 some-odd years of conditioning on how to play the game of football,” Morreale said. “A lot of times, a defender is going for a shoulder and the (ball-carrier’s) head dips and you have incidental head-to-head contact.”
However, Morreale believes more can be done to enhance player safety in the CFL and said fortunately both the union and league are on the same page regarding the issue.
“I think more needs to be done, which means we have to collectively as players and coaches and management come up with better rules that surround not only fines and suspensions but maybe possibly the rules of the game as well,” he said. “That’s what I hope would create part of our discussion around negotiation time.
“The league and us are on the same page so there’s not a lot of head-to-head on, ‘No, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ I think we both jointly agree the health of our players is the most important thing.”
Education, Copeland said, is a key.
“Football is a contact game but it can be a very safe game when played properly,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to communicate to everyone involved.”
HALL OF FAME
Former CFL players Brian Fryer, Dan Ferrone, Miles Gorrell and Earl Winfield, along with builders Jake Ireland and Don Loney, will be formally inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame this week in Edmonton.
They’ll be presented their jackets Wednesday and have their busts unveiled Thursday morning before the Hall of Fame gala dinner later that night.
The festivities will culminate with the Edmonton Eskimos hosting the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday afternoon.