How does a sports league like the NFL keep their players from being seriously hurt? At face value, it seems like a strange question given the violent nature of football. Pain seems to be a built-in reality of this sport, and those that play typically understand that there can be serious risks. Obviously, there are rules governing the behavior of the players and hopefully no one is out to intentionally cripple an opponent. Still, the NFL has a real quandary. Violence sells, but hurt players means lost revenue and the potential for lawsuits. The NFL continues to stress that they are worried about player health, but some of their messages and structures seem to be hypocritical. NFL concern for injuries sounds like alcohol companies that tell their customers to “drink responsibility” even though they know that their product kills thousands of people every year. Here are a few thoughts on violence in the NFL, and the mixed messages that are being sent.
More games, more injuries
At the same time the NFL is trying to crack down on violent hits, they are also trying to make the season longer. Obviously, the league is doing this because the pre-season is generally irrelevant and the NFL wants to make more money. However, putting the players on the field for a longer season makes them more susceptible to injury. In addition, the NFL actively markets violence. Hard hits are part of the game and the league knows that people enjoy seeing a good tackle. Granted, moods can instantly change when a player is slow to get up. However, there is no denying that football is the modern gladiator sport and that people enjoy a crushing hit. The NFL knows this. The networks also know this, which is why they show a hard hit multiple times and from various angles.
Just the head?
Clearly, head injuries are a scary part of football. However, why are hits to the head suddenly on the league’s radar? After all, the rules are not new. In a recent radio interview with Tony Bruno, NFL Vice President of Officiating Ray Anderson suggested that an increase of medical knowledge has caused the NFL to take a closer look at concussions. The problem with this statement is that the danger of concussions is hardly a new discovery. Medical technology is obviously advancing, but doctors have known for quite some time that concussions are a dangerous injury. In addition, what about other injuries? What about long-term damage to major organs or joints? What about the player that gets sandwiched in a pile or leaps over a group of players and lands on his head? What about the increased size of NFL players, which may lead to an early death? The NFL may be feigning concern, but they have a whole other host of injury possibilities. This does not even include the short lifespan of many former NFL players.
Making the call
The challenge for the NFL is determining whether a play is illegal, “dirty,” or allowable within the rules. Some of the frustration expressed by the players has stemmed from large fines for plays that were not actually flagged during the game. This puts the league in a strange situation where they are judging a fast-paced game after the fact. In addition, how much room is there for error? Professional football is an extremely fast-paced game played by elite athletes. Sometimes a person can tell when a defensive player has targeted the head of an offense player. However, what happens when the defensive player goes for the midsection and the offensive player puts his head down? What happens when a player makes an unexpected move and the defensive player ends up hitting an area that they did not intend to hit?
One would like to think that the NFL truly has compassion for their players. However, this is difficult to digest completely given the commerce-based nature of modern society. As radio personality Jim Rome noted recently, “Offense pays the bills.” This is why quarterbacks have become so protected in the NFL. It isn’t necessarily for their personal health. Rather, the NFL wants them on the field because they are often the players that fans show up to see. Is the NFL’s more aggressive stance against hard hits a sign of compassion? Or, is it simply a business move to maximize revenue?
Some level of wisdom
Obviously, the league should have rules on certain types of tackles and those rules should be enforced. Just because football is a violent sport does not mean that anything goes. The NFL is a money-making machine but it seems reasonable to assume that there is some degree of human compassion in the league office. Unfortunately, it is still football. If the league truly wants to make it safe, they should remove tackling altogether and give everyone flag belts to wear. The reality is that fans don’t want to see flag football. Unless the league wants to wrap everyone in protection foam, there will continue to be injuries on the field and some of them will unfortunately be devastating.