On Tuesday, the NFL handed out a king’s ransom worth of fines and announced their renewed commitment to the enforcement of rules designed to protect players from head injuries, scoring them accolades across the board for their proactive approach to concussion prevention, a growing concern among NFL players and fans as we learn more and more about the long term effects of head injuries. On the surface, it’s the right thing to do, we could argue that it should have been done long ago, or that simply enforcing the rules as they exist already would preclude the need for any grandstanding or any renewal of commitment from the league regarding this matter, but progress is progress, so let’s applaud it for what it is.
Having said that however, are we really to believe that this is anything other than another veiled attempt by the league and it’s ownership group to pass the onus for yet another troublesome issue along to the players? There should be no question that a marketing engine the size and scale of the NFL didn’t achieve that level of success by accident, so it likewise should be no surprise that the league has seemingly mastered, at least of late, the process of spinning propaganda and driving the direction of public opinion as well.
Make no mistake, in the past 12 months, NFL owners have not only opted out of their current collective bargaining agreement for the sake of claiming a bigger share of the pie, but have also set the stage to now lock out the players in the name of giving us the fans what we really want, 2 more games per season, and HGH testing. Is that what we really want? To some degree it must be, as fans seem to be eating it up. Forget that the owners are still negotiating for a bigger piece of the pie, while now trying to grow the pie too. Forget too, that the owners have enough TV money in place for next season that when coupled with the reduction in expenditures for salaries and other expenses associated with fielding a football team stands to make them just as much or more money for not having a 2011 season as they would by having one. And definitely forget that in addition to the annual incomes and expense accounts drawn from their teams, these ultra-rich owners have also seen the values of their franchises grow faster than seemingly any other commodity available on the free market, largely because of the kush stadium deals and other benefits afforded to them at taxpayer expense. Forget it all, because the NFL is set to go to war with its labor force, despite the fact that by comparison, with their short careers, smaller salaries and lack of guaranteed money, football players already enjoy the least lucrative position in all of major American professional athletes. And they have us behind them…somehow. But I digress. The real point of today’s rant is that despite the accolades the NFL has deservedly received for at least acknowledging the issue of head trauma and their interest in preventing it, in typical NFL spin machine fashion, it seems that once again the onus for the issue has been passed on to the players exclusively.
While the NFL is casting these as dirty plays, and hurting players in their wallets over them, it’s fair to say that a vast majority of the hits that have been and will be fined heavily going forward are hits that the players making them have been making their whole lives, hits that would have drawn acclaim rather than scrutiny just a few seasons ago. Football 101 dictates that going over the middle can come at a price, and should. Separating a player from the ball on a single play is really only part of the equation. The cumulative effect of hard hits, taken over the middle often leads to players being more and more reluctant to do it as the game wears on. How are players supposed to deliver those shots today when slowing themselves while being careful to stay in the “Strike Zone”? What’s more, I guess the league offices are now in the business of determining intent when questionable hits occur. Wait until the first suspension gets doled out, then the debate really begins.
When I say that the league has been slow to act on this matter, I say so being a fairly devout reader of the TMQ column by Gregg Easterbrook featured every Tuesday during football season at ESPN.com. Easterbrook has been on this subject for years in his column, and has made a number of great points on the problems and potential solutions. The biggest of which cannot be overstated, most of the football players in the US are children, children who without the benefit of muscle and bone maturity are far more susceptible to these types of injuries than adults. Side wherever you want on the athletes as role models debate, but that’s more about off the field choices, on the field, every player is a role model, one whose behavior is subject to be emulated by any number of children at the recreational levels of their respective sports. To that end, our athletes, and the leagues that govern their behavior owe it to us to do things the right way and set the best possible example, especially as it relates to player safety.
Start with helmet technology, while I’m not going to advocate for any company or specific model, type anti concussion football helmets into any search engine, and you’ll learn that helmet technology has come a long way in the last decade or so. Helmets are in production currently that studies have shown to reduce the propensity for concussions exponentially. Check out the images and you’ll recognize them, surely you’ve seen a few on the college and NFL fields by now. Why not mandate them? If they’re proven safer, and the league is concerned with safety it sounds simple. If the NFL did this, how long do you think it would take colleges and high schools to follow suit? (As I understand it, their is a powerful lobby that works on behalf of the industry that reconditions and resells used helmets, my potential for understanding pretty much ends there however.)
Want to get really extreme with helmet safety? Why not mandate the old Mark Kelso helmets, with the foam rubber outer pads? In addition to protecting the wearer, you’d have to imagine that this would also lessen the damage caused by the occasional accidental big hit across the middle. It couldn’t be that the league is more concerned with cosmetic appearance than player safety, could it?
Recently Easterbrook also pointed out the number of times per game you see players losing their helmets on the field. This is most likely due to poor fitting and/or unsecured helmets, a problem easily correctable and enforceable by the league, yet one that persists nonetheless. And what about mouthpiece technology? In addition to protecting your teeth, a mouthpiece is also meant to reduce the likelihood for concussions. Should any player on the filed, with the possible exception of the uber-protected quarterbacks, be allowed to go though a single play without a mouthpiece? Furthermore, why not have players fitted with real dentist made double-sided mouthpieces like those that fighters wear instead of the boil and bite style single sided mouthpieces they currently use? I seem to remember Jon Gruden going on during a Saints game last year about how they had worked with a company that made mouthpieces that actually aligned a players spine and increased their range of motion.
What do you do now as a defensive player when an offensive player dives? Should running backs still be allowed to deliver big hits to the helmets of would be tacklers with their off-ball arms?
These and a number of other issues are likely to arise as the NFL traverses forward into uncharted territory as it relates to player safety, and I applaud the first step taken by the league this week. It’s becoming all too predictable though that whatever the issues may be, the league has found a way to shirk their share of the blame and pass it along to the players. This doesn’t speak well to them doing a better job of protecting players going forward. And again, in matters that are far beyond my level of comprehension, one would have to imagine that with a slew of players both past and present that will undoubtedly be suffering from the effects of these head traumas long after their careers and contracts have passed, that the NFL might have to be careful as to how much of the responsibility they willingly accept given the potential for future lawsuits.
When the NFL gets serious about fixing this thing, if they get serious about fixing it, it will be obvious, because in so doing, they’ll be sharing in the responsibility. Until I hear them accept responsibility for anything…ever, I’ll take what they’re spinning with a grain of salt.
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