A white defender prepares to strike Speedy Cannon, number 21. (Courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

In the wake of last night’s important PBS Frontline on concussions and the NFL (and a cover-up), here’s a quite different angle on helmet-to-helmet hits: a remarkable Sports Illustrated feature on the death of Speedy Cannon, a star black running back in Alabama back in early 1970s, when racism was even stronger there than it is today.

Cannon, who went to a racially mixed high school and served as junior class president, died a few hours after being brutally struck, when he was on the ground and out of bounds, with the helmet of a white rival, IDed in the piece only as “Number 70,” who played for a team with exactly one black player. Was it an accident? Murder? Credible reports cite the “nigger” chants in the crowd that night, the Confederate flags, the cheers for the brutal hit. Rumors, not confirmed, had the coach instructing players to deliberately injure Cannon.

The site even presents a clip of the fatal play. You can watch it in slow motion. There can be little doubt that the hit was not a mistake. And remarkably, the writer, Thomas Lake, tracks down the kid, now a man (age 56) who launched himself like a missile at Cannon’s head, and his coach, among others. Stil, the mystery remains.

See if you agree with the writer’s conclusion. I don’t want to give it away, but let’s say I think he cops out just a bit. It’s possible for a perp to not be an out-and-out racist but still deliberately try to hurt someone, especially in a highly racialized context. Lake may also lean too heavily on a theory that Cannon must have suffered concussions earlier that year from hard tackling. Perhaps it’s really “just” about football (again, see the Frontline report), and not Alabama racism. But read it and watch the play and comment below, please.

Dave Zirin takes down the NFL concussion deal.