Everyone loves a big hit. Except, it would seem, the NFL.
After an off-season that featured a detailed discussion about brain injury and long term effects on player's health resulting from head-to-head collisions, NFL executive Ray Anderson told ESPN, "We are trying to get our players to not initiate contact on defenseless players including defenseless receivers to the head or neck area with the forearm the shoulder or the helmet. We're trying to get that out of the game."
This came as a more immediate reaction to the rash of concussed players throughout the regular season thus far. The rule on unnecessary roughness—especially the sections pertaining to defenseless players—will most likely be enforced with steeper fines and possibly suspensions.
The announcement has sparked a deep debate amongst current and former NFL players, physicians, coaches, broadcasters and fans. Some see it as a necessary step towards keeping players safer and healthier throughout their careers. Others think it is an example of NFL executives overstepping their boundaries with excessive legislation.
Facts are facts: head-to-head shots are dangerous and can have lingering, life changing effects on everyone involved. There are numerous stories of NFL alumni who have been effected by this type of injury both during their career, and suffered side effects after retirement. So the question of physical safety should not be a piece of the argument, and I would not posit that anyone has downplayed that aspect of the rule change.
There are, however, certain aspects of the announcement that have people confused. Ray Anderson initially used the term 'devastating' to describe some of the tackles and hits the NFL was looking to get to rid of. No one is quite sure what the on-field definition of 'devastating' is, including—I imagine—Ray Anderson.
This rather vague description has many people rightfully confused and concerned that some of the excitement of football is set to be legislated out of the game. I believe this will not be the case.
The NFL owes a great deal of its success to adaptability. The league has always been very good at allowing new rules to come forward, and making a dedicated effort to figure out how they can be fit in to the game and phased out if they are not working. Look at instant replay and the shove-out rule. One rule worked, and has stayed; the other is gone. The game constantly moves forward, and when the official announcement on helmet-to-helmet shots come forward, I believe it will continue in that fashion.
That is not to say that there are not concerns. The fact of the matter is, you cannot coach physics. These NFL players today are built like thoroughbreds, and when they start moving, I can imagine it's fairly hard to stop. So the idea that devices beyond their control—momentum and inertia—will cause players to sit games, is suspect to me.
Hopefully, the emphasis will be put on flagrant and intentional penalties of this nature.
Furthermore—and I am not one to casually throw out the role model argument—changing this rule will hopefully have a trickle down effect into lower forms of football. Being on both ends of 'devastating hits' in my less-than-illustrious football career, I can say that no one wants to be clocked in the helmet when they aren't expecting it. Changing this rule in the professional level could begin to change the culture of the big hit. When high school and college players go for the highlight hit, dangerous things can and do happen.
There is simply no argument that can be sensibly made in favor of hits like this when children and young adults are concerned. Young players look to professionals to see how the game is played, and this is one aspect of the game that should not be emphasized.
The NFL has a right to protect their investment. The League depends on high caliber players to continue to stay atop the professional sports world. So putting a rule in place like this is ensuring a higher standard of play for a longer period of time. People may say that 'this is the way the game is played' or 'they know what they are signing up for', and they are correct.
But football also used to be played with no helmets and no forward pass. And it is true that NFL players know the risks of the game, but when that inevitable end point reaches an NFL field—a player dies as a result of a jarring hit—would you still say the same things if there was no effort made to prevent it?
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