Helmet hits spur lots of talk

Ben Cahoon fully supports the NFL’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits and the Montreal Alouettes star receiver believes the CFL should follow suit.

Edmonton Eskimos’ quarterback Ricky Ray

Edmonton Eskimos’ quarterback Ricky Ray

Ben Cahoon fully supports the NFL’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits and the Montreal Alouettes star receiver believes the CFL should follow suit.

On Tuesday, the NFL fined three players a combined US$175,000 for flagrant hits during games and said starting this week those who commit similar acts could face immediate suspension.

That’s in stark contrast to the league’s prior policy, which was to either fine or eject players for illegal hits.

“I agree with it and yes, the CFL should follow the lead of the NFL,” said Cahoon, the most prolific non-import receiver ever to play in Canada. “The athletes are the product.

“The NFL realizes if guys are missing games or having to retire prematurely because of repeated head injuries the product is going to suffer. I think it’s a smart business decision.”

But Calgary Stampeders defensive back Dwight Anderson disagrees, saying he doesn’t believe the issue of helmet-to-helmet hits is a serious one.

“I don’t think it’s even a burning issue in the NFL,” he said. “Sunday was just a day when you had four different players knocked out, so everybody is on that topic.”

Anderson doesn’t like the idea of suspending players because there are too many factors out of their control once the ball is snapped.

“I can understand a fine if you go back and review it and see there’s a blatant hit, go ahead and fine the guy,” Anderson said.

“The speed of the game, especially as a safety coming down out of the middle, he’s coming full speed and he’s got to judge the ball.

“If the ball is too high, you can’t really clean the guy, but if you’re coming down and the guy . . . ducks his head and you hit him on the head, you can’t suspend a guy for that because it wasn’t blatant. If the ball is over the head, uncatchable and unplayable and the guy comes and tees off . . . that right there, that’s a toss-up, but you could get a fine out of that because that’s an uncatchable ball.”

Davis Sanchez, the B.C. Lions veteran cornerback, agrees with coming down hard in those who actively try to hurt an opponent but also understands Anderson’s point of view.

“No, you have to do that (fine, suspend players), especially if there’s malicious intent,” he said. “(But) things are going to happen.

“You’re going to hit someone in the head by accident. That’s just natural. I don’t think you should be punished or lose a game cheque or be suspended when you’re trying to do your job.”

Anderson says it’s easy to define what constitutes a dirty hit.

“Say I’m running down the field and come and clean you in the head. That’s not necessary. If it’s uncatchable, I don’t think you should go ahead and try and clean somebody.”

The NFL is one of North America’s most popular leagues with skyrocketing television ratings and most of its games played in sold-out stadiums. One reason for that is the excitement created by hard, bone-crunching hits.

NFL rules stipulate any contact to a player’s head — with a helmet, shoulder or forearm — is illegal.

Under CFL rules, using a helmet to butt, ram or spear an opponent is illegal, as is any blow above a passer’s shoulders. Chief operating officer Michael Copeland says the process is in place for the league to penalize a player for any action deemed to be outside ”an acceptable football play.“

“We do have procedures in place,” he said. “We are ready should it happen.”

But since 2007, two CFL players have been able to avoid serving a league-mandated suspension.

In 2007, former Edmonton linebacker A.J. Gass successfully appealed a one-game suspension for ripping the helmet off Calgary offensive lineman John Comiskey and throwing it downfield before being ejected. Three years ago, then B.C. tackle Jason Jiminez did the same after receiving a one-game ban for a nasty hit on Calgary defensive lineman Anthony Gargiulo, who sustained leg injuries and was forced to retire.

Jiminez, now with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, also got in hot water this year for submarining B.C. defensive end Brent Johnson from behind during a game. But this time, the CFL fined Jiminez heavily, reportedly taking half his game cheque for the incident.

There’s a popular belief among U.S. football pundits that there’s been an increase in the number of dangerous hits because the NFL has become more of a pass-oriented league. But in Canada, with its three downs and wider, longer field, the game has always been dominated by the forward pass and yet this year the issue hasn’t drawn nearly the attention that it has in the U.S.

And B.C. Lions cornerback Korey Banks credits that, in part, to the wider, longer field.

“The field’s not so condensed,” he said. “In the NFL you have bigger athletes, fast athletes playing in a small area and there’s going to be some violent hits.

“Offence sells tickets but the world wants to see violence. That’s the era we live in.”

Added Calgary quarterback Henry Burris: “Right now I think things are well but if you start to see that up here, it definitely needs to be dealt with. Of course, it’s a dangerous game and things will happen. If it does get to a point where things (like that) escalate as far as numbers in game-to-game situations, then definitely something needs to happen.”

But helmet-to-helmet hits have occurred.

On Saturday, B.C. Lions linebacker Solomon Elimimian was penalized for rough play after butting heads with Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray in the Eskimos 31-28 overtime victory. And it was Elimimian who knocked Toronto tailback Cory Boyd unconscious in a 37-16 home win Sept. 11.

Lions coach/GM Wally Buono said there’s a lot of confusion regarding helmet-to-helmet hits.

“I don’t know whether that (violent helmet-to-helmet hits) can be addressed unless you start changing certain rules or the way the game is played,” Buono said. “The helmet in certain instances is part of the game. In other instances it’s not part of the game. It’s not only confusing for the player, it’s confusing for everybody. It’s not a simple answer.

“All of us want to put players’ safety first but players’ safety first isn’t always instituting a fine or a suspension. The defensive player is coached to separate the receiver, the running back, from the football. He’s coached the more violent the hit, the better player you are. If that’s a major issue, then you’ve got to look at major changes to the game of football.”

Boyd, the CFL’s rushing leader, suffered a concussion on the play and missed the next two weeks. That was a huge blow to Toronto (7-8), which is battling Hamilton (8-7) for second in the East Division and lost both games without Boyd.

Then again, not all season-ending injuries sustained on the weekend were the result of illegal hits.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders lost kicker Luca Congi to a season-ending knee injury when Anderson landed on Congi’s leg while blocking a 43-yard field-goal try in Calgary’s 34-26 road win Sunday. Two series later, the Riders lost receiver Rob Bagg for the rest of the year when his foot got caught in the turf and he went down without being hit.

Montreal quarterback Anthony Cavillo, in his 17th CFL season, said players understand fully the risk they’re taking every time they step on to the field. On Saturday Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers football player, was paralyzed from the neck down making a tackle on a kickoff return against Army on Saturday afternoon.

“Football has always been a violent sport and as athletes we realize that,” he said. “I’m just glad now they’re looking into the concussion part of the game.

“A lot of guys like myself got dinged up and went back in to games when they probably shouldn’t have. Over the years of playing professional football, it has taken a toll on my mind. If I wouldn’t have played football, I honestly feel my mind would be stronger. Not to say that it’s weak, but I think its taken it’s toll and that’s always a concern for how long I’m going to play football.”

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