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CFL suspends Johnny Sears for leading with the helmet

The CFL's disciplinary decision on Winnipeg's Johnny Sears' hit on Toronto's Steven Jyles Friday (a controversial helmet-first hit bashed by many of the Argonauts) was almost as late in coming and as highly anticipated as a certain Beckett character, but at least it finally showed up. In a statement sent to media at 6:06 p.m. Eastern, the league announced that it would be suspending Sears for a game, fining the Argos' Rob Murphy and Taylor Robertson for their comments about the hit and fining B.C. Lions' players Keron Williams and Khalif Mitchell for unrelated criticisms of officials. Here's video of the Sears hit:

And here are the comments of commissioner Mark Cohon in the release (which says something in and of itself, as many of the comments in these releases come from other league officials):

"While I appreciate the sincerity of the player in his conversation with me today, this was a reckless and dangerous hit that must be met with appropriate discipline," Cohon said.
"In our league, with just an 18-game schedule, this is a significant and effective penalty."

CFL suspends Johnny Sears for leading with the helmetAs discussed earlier, this hit by Sears (seen at right) had many of the Argonauts inflamed, at least somewhat justifiably. Leading with the helmet is a significant problem in the CFL, and one that saw Saskatchewan's Craig Butler fined $750 earlier this year and Ejiro Kuale fined an undisclosed amount (oddly enough, also in a Toronto-Winnipeg game). At the time of Butler's hit, CFL vice president (football operations) Kevin McDonald said "These types of hits are illegal because they are dangerous and pose a serious risk of injury to players."

Exactly. It's also worth noting that the danger is not just to the player being tackled, as the defender can also pick up significant long-term brain problems from leading with his helmet. Unfortunately, this isn't just a CFL issue, but rather a cultural one; today's football players have grown up watching massive helmet-to-helmet hits endlessly replayed on highlight reels, while the impact of those hits on the players who delivered and took them gets much less attention. Many players think about going for the big hit at the expense of all else, and that's problematic.

How can the CFL address the issue of leading with the head? Well, there are a few ways. First, immediately flag and penalize any play where the defender leads with his helmet; the league can institute supplemental discipline later depending on the severity of the play, but leading with a helmet should be an automatic penalty regardless of the damage done (and it could be called anything from rough play to unnecessary roughness). Second, have coaches emphasize solid form tackling and leading with the shoulder in drills. Third, reinforce that the long-term consequences of leading with the head aren't worth the short-term highlight-reel hits. It's still quite possible to make highlight-reel painful hits without leading with the helmet; just ask Jamall Johnson.

It's nice to see the league step up to a suspension from fines, as clearly fines alone weren't getting the message across (and the suspension also carries the loss of a game cheque, or 1/18th of Sears' salary, which should also be an effective deterrent). Hopefully, Sears and the rest of the league will learn from this, and leading with the head will become less of an issue. It may not change any time soon, though, as the whole culture of football is a huge part of the problem.

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