Vikings backup quarterback Shaun Hill has placed himself at the center of football's most important story: player safety.
He's an employee of a league that has spent recent years defending its reputation and history as it relates to concussions and overall brain health. But he's also a father of two very young boys and has roots in the small Midwest town of Parsons, Kan.
Hill has stepped into a burgeoning discussion/controversy over a decision there to start tackle football in fifth grade, while limiting third- and fourth-graders to playing flag football. The Vikings QB wrote a long letter to the Parsons newspaper, which was recently reprinted via ESPN.com. In it, Hill comes out as a proponent of the new plan — a sentiment that runs counter to how things have traditionally been run in Parsons.
Hill didn't start playing tackle football until sixth grade and says he plans the same for his young boys. He makes strong arguments about player development and opportunities for more inclusive participation that will come from the new way of doing things. He also makes it clear that he is a "huge proponent of the sport of football" for a variety of reasons.
At the heart of the question about when to start tackle football, though, is safety. Writes Hill: "The board and I felt strongly that adding the extra weight of a helmet to the underdeveloped neck of third- and fourth-graders tackling and hitting each other made no sense at all. Our plan is to play flag football with these kids to keep them off the ground. We still plan to put them in helmets for protection, and for building neck strength for their future tackle football years."
It's a measured stance, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays out in the heartland. On the other hand, while this stance is worth applauding as it pertains to safety, it's also quite possible the long-term picture wouldn't change much by holding off on the rough stuff for a couple of years.
Ann McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, said in November that football players "get 1,000 to 1,500 sub-concussive hits per season, even in high school — that's tens of thousands of hits if they play 10 years" and said those repeated blows to the head are "probably very important in developing" chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Eliminating a small fraction of those traumas at a young age, when impacts aren't as great, is notable but might be akin to a misdirection when we're talking about solving the overall problem of brain health and football.
I'm not equating football to smoking, but for example if I smoked 20 cigarettes a day until someone made a rule that I could only have 18 a day, I'd be marginally safer but still not safe.
That's not to criticize Hill in any way. His support carries weight (and he's even sponsoring the flag football league). That's a lot for one person to do, and even if progress is incremental it's still progress.
I imagine stories such as starting to play tackle football at a later age are the types that football (with the NFL at the forefront) will be latching onto in greater numbers as measures of improved safety even in the face of harder evidence showing the sport's continued dangers.