NFL Rule Changes: Why Safety Is the Real Issue in the NFL Labor Dispute

Chris MarkochContributor IIMarch 24, 2011

Harrison shown here on October 17, 2010. He didn't have a lot to celebrate after the game
Harrison shown here on October 17, 2010. He didn't have a lot to celebrate after the gameGregory Shamus/Getty Images

As if the players and owners didn't have enough to disagree about, the latest rule change regarding kickoffs adds more fuel to the fire.

But that may be a good thing. This latest tempest in a tea pot may be exactly what's needed to get both sides talking about what the labor dispute is really about: What does a "safe" game look like.

The NFL has been enhancing player safety for years. Still, the issue of head trauma has been gathering momentum like storm clouds on a horizon.

And on October 17, 2010 it started to storm.

No less than three helmet-to-helmet hits within an hour brought the issue of player safety front and center. If owners didn't "get it" before, they did on that given Sunday. And it was punctuated in the story of Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers football player who suffered a spinal cord injury the day before while, wait for it, covering a kickoff.

An owner can try to look at safety as managing risk. But in the end, he can only hope to measure success by keeping players healthy, extending their careers, and leaving them with fewer health issues in the future. And on a more base level, to prevent a player from dying on the field.

How else can you look at rules changes that are clearly well-intentioned, but ambiguous in how much safer they will make the game?

The player can try to look at safety as health insurance. They want the game to be physical and are willing to be the Sunday warrior, as long as they're compensated for the toll that the game takes. And on a more base level they think, "it won't happen to me". Until they see the players who have gone before and realize that, on some level, it will happen to them.

How else can you reconcile the contradiction of players who claim the owners don't care about safety, but then cry foul at every rule change that is at least on some level done to promote safety.

Pay now or pay later? And what is the cost to the quality of play? Those are the questions that seem to be getting papered over under arcane financial documents which will say exactly what each party wants them to say.

Each side is trying to take the high ground. Each side wants to be seen as doing something. In the end, both sides know that the game is changing. And change is always unsettling.

I respect Roger Goodell for raising awareness of player conduct and safety. It would have been easy to come in, take a look at the balance sheet and decide not to change something that wasn't broken.

Instead, he saw cracks in the foundation and decided (and convinced the owners) that these issues need to be addressed now, before they become a big problem later.

Is money an issue? Of course. I'm not naive enough to believe that the players are going to just hand over nearly a billion dollars without a fight.

But I also think that somewhere between the billion they're currently giving up and the billion more being requested by the owners, there's a compromise that doesn't require an audit.

Because in the end, that's just money.

The real issue is the future of the game. Not whether or not it will be played, or how much the players will get paid, but what price will the owners and players be willing to pay?