February 20, 2020
As NASCAR driver Ryan Newman walked out of a hospital Wednesday, the world was still marveling that he even survived the final lap at Monday’s Daytona 500.
His car hit a wall, flipped, went airborne, was T-boned and skidded on its roof toward the finish line. There was no response on Newman’s in-car radio, and everybody started having 2001 flashbacks.
On the final lap that year, Dale Earnhardt died in a crash that looked pedestrian compared to Monday night’s violence. The contrast shows how much NASCAR has evolved, and reinforces a simple lesson parents have always preached to children:
About that time, concussions became an issue with football, and the NFL began its glacial move toward making the game safer.
As with NASCAR, many of the NFL’s problems are self-inflicted. It first pretended there wasn’t a concussion problem. The league that once glorified head-rattling hits has also been slow to fully address it.
And as with NASCAR, many fans and competitors complain they no longer recognize the gun-slinging sport they grew up loving. Somebody should send NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a tape of the Daytona 500. It would graphically show why emphasizing safety is far more important than worrying about alienating fans.
Then they should send another to Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert. When the NFL began making rules to protect quarterbacks decades ago, he crystallized the attitude that is still too prevalent.
“They should just put a skirt on the quarterback to distinguish him from real players,” Lambert said.
Nobody ever put a skirt on Earnhardt. “The Intimidator” once unbuckled his seat belt, sat in the window and cleaned the muddy windshield — in the middle of a race.
He wrecked his car in the 1997 Daytona 500 and was put in an ambulance. After a few minutes, Earnhardt decided his car was still (barely) drivable, so he hopped out of the ambulance and finished the race.
“It’s not a sport for the faint of heart,” he said.
Earnhardt chafed at helmet and seat-belt rules, such as they were. When he became the fourth driver in eight months to die from a fracture at the base of the skull, NASCAR was jolted into reality.
Head-and-neck restraint systems, redesigned cars, soft-wall technology and other improvements were instituted. It’s no coincidence that Earnhardt was the last driver killed on the job.
Now fans almost take it for granted their heroes will walk away from horrific crashes.
“I thank my lucky stars every day that I came in the sport when I did,” said Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who debuted five years after Earnhardt’s death.
It took one lethal slap in the face for NASCAR to get serious about safety. It took thousands of concussions before the NFL admitted there was even a problem.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue described concussions as a “pack journalism issue” in 1994. The league didn’t admit concussions had long-term effects until 2009. In 2012, more than 4,500 ex-players sued the NFL for the brain injuries stemming from football.
The league began restricting helmet-to-helmet contact and instituted other measures to lessen the violence. Rush Limbaugh decried it as “chickifying” the game. All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher sounded like Earnhardt in cleats.
“If you don’t want to play and get concussed, then don’t play,” he said. “It’s your career, it’s your life.”
Many players groused when more helmet rules were introduced in 2018. They said if the NFL truly wanted to make the game safer, it would stop pushing to expand the season by one game. It also would get rid of Thursday night games, which don’t allow players time to properly recover from games the previous Sunday.
Those are valid criticisms the league needs to address. But the rule changes are having some positive effect.
Concussions have declined 20% the past two years. More changes, like the elimination of kickoffs, are in the works.
Attitudes are also evolving. During a playoff game last month, Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz followed NFL protocol and told team doctors he was groggy from a hit. He was benched the rest of the day.
Lambert might have ordered him a skirt, but Wentz’s admission wasn’t an example of chickifying. It was a testament to common sense.
Football is the most popular concussion activity, but brain trauma is a growing concern in sports like hockey, rugby and even soccer. Given the inherent risks, we could debate whether some sports (hello, boxing) should even exist.
The fact is football and NASCAR are too ingrained in American culture to ever go away. So it’s up to the governing bodies to put safety first.
That indeed means fans may no longer recognize the sport they grew up with.
Right now, nobody is more thankful for that than Ryan Newman.