Broadcasters adapt as focus on concussions changes

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The violent hit that left Cincinnati Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley with a concussion was an illegal one, earning Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward a $15,000 fine.

To NFL Network analysts Deion Sanders and Steve Mariucci, it wasn’t so clear-cut.

The end-zone collision two weeks ago prompted an impassioned debate on “GameDay Highlights” that spilled over into later shows, with Sanders insisting it was a clean hit and Mariucci just as adamant that Ward deserved every cent of the punishment he eventually got.

“His shoulder hit his face,” Mariucci said. “A defenseless receiver.”

“Where do you want him to hit him? In the stomach?” Sanders shot back.

Football’s violent nature is part of its wide appeal. But as more is learned about the long-term damage of head trauma and the NFL puts increased emphasis on preventing concussions, broadcasters have to walk a fine line between savoring good, tough play and glorifying hits that can cause serious harm.

“The truth is, the announcers set the tone for what’s good sportsmanship and what’s bad sportsmanship,” said Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestling star and football player at Harvard who is now president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which promotes the study, treatment and prevention of brain trauma in athletes.

“It’s not a requirement for their job to understand the concussion problem,” Nowinski said. “But the responsibility the announcers have, the reach they have to shape the future of the game, is so big.”

Time was, a hit that knocked a player out would get rave reviews and few cared whether it was legal or not. Guys who stayed in the game when they couldn’t even tell you their names were hailed as warriors.

Yet as evidence has emerged about the catastrophic damage that comes with concussions and other head trauma, prevention and care is becoming a focal point for the NFL. There are new return-to-play guidelines this year, and teams must consult with an independent neurologist whenever there is a head injury. Rules also were changed to prevent “defenseless” players from taking shots above their shoulders.

Cutting big hits out of broadcasts isn’t an option. They’re part of the game and, unless the league wants to be little more than a flag-football game in the park, always will be, said Joe Theismann, an analyst with the NFL Network, the league’s broadcasting arm.

“You have guys running 20 yards at full speed, running into a guy that’s either bigger or smaller,” Theismann said. “It’s the old theory about mass. In this case, when two massive units collide, something’s going to give.”

Still, while it’s hard to quantify, how the big hits are addressed seems to be changing, at least on the pro level.

When Bears backup Todd Collins left a recent game against the New York Giants after being sacked, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth didn’t crack a joke or make light of Chicago losing another quarterback (Jay Cutler had already been knocked out with a concussion). Instead, Collinsworth explained that the way Collins was hit and the fact his arms were pinned had made him vulnerable to an injury because he had no chance to break his fall.

Collins was diagnosed with a stinger, and played Sunday.

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