PRO FOOTBALL / BOB OATES : NFL Must Enforce Rules, Prevent Spearing Injuries


The accident that left another pro athlete partially paralyzed in a football game Sunday was a tragic reminder that in recent years, the NFL has been on a collision course with disaster.

Dennis Byrd might not have been injured had the league legislated more aggressively against players who use their helmets to spear opposing players.

Byrd, 26, is a New York Jet defensive lineman who was rushing the passer at Giants Stadium Sunday when, instead, he unintentionally hit a teammate, plowing headfirst into the man’s breastbone.


The collision put Byrd in a hospital with a broken bone in his neck. A 6-foot-5, 266-pound, 1989 second-round draft choice from Tulsa, he is from Mustang, Okla. His wife, Angela, is pregnant with their second child. She rode to the hospital with him in the ambulance.

Here in the West, we didn’t see the game, and at this distance it is hard to tell if Byrd was hurt in a fluke collision or an attempted spearing. It could have been either.

But of one fact, there is no doubt. Spearing is on the rise in the NFL this year because the rules against it are inadequately enforced and because the penalty, 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, is too light.

The penalty should be ejection and loss of a game’s pay.

As an exercise in violence, football is supposed to differ from prizefighting in one critical respect: intent.

A boxer deliberately aims to injure his opponent, to knock him senseless if possible.

In a well-played football game, there is also a macho intent, but the idea is to dominate physically--not to injure.

The distinction is enormous, in theory, but the NFL has blurred the distinction. It doesn’t seem to care that defensive players are deliberately trying to injure quarterbacks--as Byrd might have been doing, and as many others do, as a matter of routine, in almost every NFL game.


At Anaheim Sunday, for example, the Minnesota Vikings twice got Ram quarterback Jim Everett with attacks that either were or should be illegal.

Viking linebacker Carlos Jenkins, making one of the year’s most vicious hits, speared Everett in the chest. On another play, defensive lineman Chris Doleman mugged him from behind, grabbed his head, and drove it into the ground.

There was no excuse for either attack except to injure Everett.

The defensive problem in pro football these days is that the most gifted offensive players, the quarterbacks and running backs, are moving targets.

And how do you hit a moving target?

If you put only a shoulder into him, a talented target might slip away.

So NFL defensive players are coached to make head-on hits into the man with the ball, and slide along with him, depending on which way he goes.

In the translation, the head-on tackle has somehow come to mean the head tackle, which can be as dangerous to the hitter as it is to the man being hit.

All over the league, nonetheless, that is what’s going on.

Raider safety Ronnie Lott has perfected another way. One of the game’s great hitters for many years, Lott bursts into a ball-carrying target with his facemask and chest. In his description, his is basically a chest-to-chest blow.


And that’s legal.

What Lott is saying is that he is tougher than the men he hits.

He aims to shake them up, as a good football player should--not injure them, as a successful boxer must.

With Lott’s way, the blow is spread over a wide area.

By contrast, when the head is used as a spearing instrument, the area where the blow lands is comparatively small. And with a more compact force, there is more danger.

Thus, boxers are often knocked out with one punch to the head. And even in football, a fluke blow can be paralyzing.

It was such a blow that ended the career of Detroit Lion guard Mike Utley when he fell on his head.

In a contact sport, there will always be fluke injuries, but there need not be purposeful injuries.

There ought to be tougher observation of the current rules and a stiffening of them in the future in three specific areas:


--Spearing should carry a stiff fine and ejection.

--Driving opponents into the ground, needlessly exposing them to serious head and shoulder injuries, should cost 15 yards.

--Running full-speed into a pocket passer after the ball has been thrown should cost 15 yards.

Strict observance of those rules would eliminate the game’s criminal element.