With the increase in regulations that are being designed to protect the long-term health of the players, there’s a lot of understandable blowback coming from the players. Certain teams - the Steelers in particular, but members of many teams - including the Titans - seem to be making the news regarding their belief that the league is singling them out, due to their well-earned reputations as very tough, physical teams. Frankly, I can understand their feelings. They’ve striven to play at the very edge of legality while not going over that line, and now the line is being moved. It will affect the way that they play, and every player who violates the new line is going to be fined, suspended or in some way punished. It has to concern them - and it should. They feel that their freedom to play the game the way that they have up until now is at stake. It is - and they should be.
They should, but not because they or any single player or team is/are being singled out. They aren’t - the rules go for every team and for every player. It’s because it will change the way that they play the game, and it will require changes to the methods of tackling and defense. Kevin Vickerson pointed out last fall that many of the rules protecting defensive linemen aren’t being consistently enforced,and I agree with him entirely:
Already, they protect the quarterback, they protect receivers. O-linemen chop-block you, and they don't want to do anything about that, to protect the knees and all that. It's all offense. You want to talk about rules, we should look at the whole game and make the rules fit everybody instead of one side of the ball. All the rules are really set up for offensive guys. Rules for going after the quarterback's knees should be the same for defensive linemen. You're taking years off a man's career.
Vick spent much of his rookie year with Tennessee out after an illegal block, so this isn’t just theory to him. His Denver teammate, defensive end Jason Hunter, said it might take some devastating knee injuries for the league to crack down on the illegal blocks like they have on the helmet hits. "All I can say is I hope they will look at that and also take that as serious as helmet-to-helmet hits because you're dealing with guys' knees and lower extremities," Hunter said.
If we’re going to look at player safety, let’s look at it for all of the players, not just any single group or groups. In a perfect world, the referees would enforce those rules exactly equally for every team, but this isn’t a perfect world. Some refs seem to dislike certain teams, and it’s not news that some players are treated differently by certain officials. That’s part of human life - it isn’t right, and it’s nearly impossible to change. The players need to accept that and move on, just as they do with the rule changes, because the rules are going to continue to change in ways that some of the players aren’t going to like. Despite the view of some of the players - perhaps even most of them - there are very powerful reasons why these changes are being made. Those reasons are going to supplant the feelings of the players for a simple reason - the game as it’s currently being played is destroying the long-term health of too many people.
Our culture has changed enormously on its view of football in the past half century or so. As late as the early 1950s, football was viewed by the media and by non-fans alike as a generally crude, often brutish game, an unfit model for children in sports and a sport in which the lowest impulses of the players - violence and barbarity - was accepted and even encouraged to a degree that was difficult for many of the fans to support, much less applaud. The NFL made rule changes that were designed to begin to reduce the levels of injury, brutality and the often unnecessary dangers to the players. Inevitably, there was an outcry by the players that the new rules were ‘ruining’ the game. The reality was that the game would become more and more popular.
But one thing that football had going for it was that it was, in essence, absolutely made for television, and through a quirk of history, television needed sports content. Just as the AFL created an even higher demand for the sport, one of the heads of ABC Sports saw the potential for bringing the fans everything but the smell of hot dogs and beer - that televised games could bring the game to the fans, and bring the fans right into the stadium with multiple camera coverage. At the time the AFL was starting up, Friday Night at the Fights, long a weekly staple of evening entertainment, was dropped because the viewers could clearly see the blood and the damage, and even fans of the sport began to realize that it wasn’t going to remain common fare for family viewing. Gillette had sponsored that program, and they were looking for a new place to spend those advertising dollars.
Football brought itself under control that decade to the point that the cameras were able to bring much of the allure, excitement, feelings of competition, and power and beauty of the game to the fans in a way that baseball was never quite able to match, as far as the nation was concerned. The NFL made an agreement with its broadcasters at that time to avoid at all costs viewing injuries, injured players laying on the field or any fight that broke out. They also avoided any shots that showed the middle and upper decks of the stadiums if the stadium wasn’t full - they wanted to present a cleaned-up, sanitized version of the sport that gave the impression that there were fans flocking to see every game and filling the stadiums. As the game was ‘cleaned up’ by reducing some of the violence, it became more popular. It was considered more of a family entertainment, which was one key to its success.
In the 1970s, there were more alterations, especially the infamous change to the holding rules. Interestingly, the Steelers also felt that they were being targeted - they were amidst their run of winning four out of six Super Bowls, and they took the removal of their defensive freedom as singling out their style of play. There were much larger issues at hand, of course - the league wanted to go from the 17-14 scores that were common to games in which the offenses were able to excite the fans, get people on their feet and soon after, to fill the reels of NFL Films with highlights that showed points being scored and yardage being gained; promising, in its way, a more rewarding entertainment experience.
The change in the rules at this point has an even more laudable reason at its heart. The plight of retired players, many of whom cannot walk unaided and who require vast amounts and costs of medical treatment and who tend to die at a much earlier age than the general population, has become a matter of great public importance. The league itself had been shown in years past to be running the concussion committee as a sham, and they see themselves (rightfully, to me) as needing to be seen as having a legitimate level of concern for the long term well-being of the players. This is commendable as far as showing a somewhat higher level of consciousness than you usually see in sports leagues, and it’s good for the sport in multiple ways.
We’ve all seen what rising healthcare costs can do to an industry, and the NFL knows that it needs to begin to make visible and real changes that will reduce the number of players who spend their later years crippled by injury and addicted to painkillers, as well as dealing with a measurable loss of cognitive function. The industry can’t afford it, financially or in terms of how the public views the sport. The public may see fewer of the truly jaw-dropping hits, but they are also going to see that the long-term health of the players will start to experience reductions in the number and severity of disabilities. Those fans who haven’t seen much prior to now will not be disappointed by the level of impact that the plays still provide.
To be fair, it’s not like there’s going to be a sudden elimination of hard hitting in the game. However, I believe there will be a return to an emphasis on proper technique in tackling, and the game will benefit from that. Head to the side, driving hard with the shoulder, not leaving your feet and wrapping up properly would be good changes to make for players from the Pop Warner level to the Super Bowl Champions - tackling technique in the NFl has gone to hell in a handcart, and it’s in the best interest of the fans, players, coaches and the league itself to demand a change in that direction. All of the levels below the NFL will also have to make that change (or simply make it more clear - tackle properly or sit on the bench). It’s a good thing for the sport. The sloppy tackling in the NFL - players who just fling themselves in the general direction of a ballcarrier’s legs or upper body aren’t that successful, but the practice continues. Parents are going to be more likely to be supportive of a student athlete being involved in a sport that takes rational levels of emphasis on playing in such a way that injuries are reduced. Some kids will have to leave the sport after suffering too many concussions at an early age - and that’s what should happen. You can make a living a lot of ways, but you only have one brain, and you have to make sure that it functions as well as possible for as long as possible.
But the players of the Steelers, and all of the others across the league who object to requiring cleaner, safer play are also going to have to admit that they can play darned well within the new regulations. They can still be intimidating - as an example, some of Joe Mays’ hits from 2010 were amazing, but not in any way outside of the rules that are being changed and/or enforced. Brian Dawkins is a very clean player despite his ferocity, and relatively few of his hits would be in any way changed by the new position of the league’s regs. Spencer Larsen made a couple of the hardest special teams tackles that I’ve ever seen, but what I’ve watched of them isn’t forbidden by any of the new guidelines. There’s really no reason why the game can’t be played more safely as well as being both clean and tough. ‘Safer’ is a long way from ‘safe’ - this will always be a game that brings with it some dangers to the players. The question that the league faces is how to reasonably find a middle road between the hits that shorten careers (and sometimes lives) and the need to maintain the highest possible level of competition. There will be some revisions to the changes as new information comes to light, but the overall thrust of the changes in the regs are aimed at reducing injuries and extending careers - which is in the best interest of all concerned.
There will always be talk of ‘ruining the game’ when the rules are changed in substantial ways. That’s always been the case - it was when the forward pass was introduced into the NFL, when offensive linemen could block and use their hands, when the practice of hammering wide receivers throughout their routes was ended. History tells us that the outcome tends to be positive, though, rather than negative - the fans generally want to see tough, hard-fought games, but rarely want to see injuries and blood, or to have their chosen team’s best players sitting idly, working through another injury. The league will have to accept that while the players don’t like it, better helmets can make a difference and they will have to be mandated. You can’t make football safe. But you can make it safer and extend careers. That just gives the fans a better chance to see their favorites in the league for a longer time - it’s a win-win across the board.