NFL gets it right on violent hits: better now than after somebody gets killed (literally)

After a disturbing round of ultra-violence during Week 6, the NFL last week announced that “even first-time offenders face suspension for ‘devastating hits’ and ‘head shots.’” Yesterday’s action indicated, in the estimation of several analysts (who appeared to be reading from the same script at times), that the message had been “delivered and received.” Sunday’s games, by comparison to the previous week’s, were relatively civil by NFL standards. The worst hit we saw in Week 7, in fact, occurred when the New Orleans’ Courtney Roby accidentally steamrolled Al Nastaci, a member of the chain gain working the Saints/Browns game.

However, the reaction to the league’s announcement among a number of players, many fans and way too many overpaid pundits needs to be examined. If you pay attention to ESPN and the myriad other networks that follow the NFL you know what I mean. Analysts barely stopped short of Jack Lambert’s comment from back in the ’70s that we might as well put quarterbacks in skirts, lamenting that it’s a violent game, that you can’t risk changing how players approach tackling, that everybody out there knows what they signed up for, etc. Several players echoed these sentiments, with some seeming at a loss for how they could even play if they weren’t allowed to turn it up to 11. Saints fullback Heath Evans tweeted that the new rules will “hurt the integrity of our gr8 game.” Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, one of the Week 6 offenders whose actions precipitated the league’s response, made a show of pretending that he might actually retire rather than try and play in the new, more restrictive environment (a proposition that Vegas sports books did not offer odds on).

The thing that struck me as I listened to this pro-anything-goes ritual being played out over and over throughout the week is that somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our ability to distinguish between the means and the end. If you’re familiar with the rules of the game, you might recall that the defender’s job is to bring the ball carrier to the ground. A hard tackle, in whatever technical form it might take, is the means by which this is accomplished. Drilling the hell out of the guy with the ball (or the guy trying to catch the ball, as the case may be) isn’t the thing itself, it’s the means to the thing itself. The rules of the game don’t care whether you separate the wide receiver from his spleen or trip him up by grabbing his shoelaces. Either way the whistle blows, the ball is down, 3rd and six.

But a distressing number of players and commentators are acting like crippling the offensive player is a birthright. It’s as though when you step on the field, there are only two options: attempted homicide or two-hand touch. If you take away the defender’s ability to rip a defenseless receiver’s head off, you might as well play in tu-tus and makeup.

Am I exaggerating here? Maybe a little, but not much. One player I heard interviewed yesterday said that they’re not out there trying to hurt anybody (hey, you’ve seen the video, you make up your own mind about that), but that if they just tap a guy on the shoulder and he runs down the field and scores they’ll lose their jobs. Really? Those are your only two choices?

Listen, I played football. I wasn’t very good, but I hit some people and got hit by some people. I got hurt a couple of times and unfortunately I inflicted one significant injury (textbook tackle, but the guy’s knee just gave on him). I’ve never opened my mouth about an injury that resulted from a clean play, though, and I never will. I’m a fan of the game, and watch both college and pro every weekend during the season. I appreciate the physicality and appreciate a good, clean hit that goes in service of getting the ball carrier to the ground (and, for that matter, let’s tip our hats to the guys in the trenches – it’s not as spectacular, but the mayhem that the O and D lines wreak on each other is something to behold).

But dammit, this isn’t the Colosseum and the game isn’t between the Lions and the Christians. No doubt some fans are there for the blood and revel in hits that are, in some cases, a threat to the careers (and even lives) of the gladiators. We can’t do anything about the pathology of each and every person watching the game. But you don’t pander to it, either. Today’s players are bigger, faster and stronger, and they’re outfitted in body armor that can be as effective at inflicting damage as it is at absorbing it. You hear the word “projectile” quite a bit in this context, and there’s a reason.

This isn’t the first time that football has come under scrutiny for its violence, and it won’t be the last. In fact, such debates are an intrinsic part of the culture of the sport and probably always will be. In football’s early days it was even more brutal:

Players wore very little padding and helmets were nothing more than a leather cap. Routinely, slugging and punching took place on the field and gang tackling was rampant. A favorite play was the “flying wedge” in which an entire team formed a V and plowed down the field like a tank. The players would often lock arms or even grab on to one another’s belts equipped with special handles. More often than not, the result was players strewn across the field and slugfests erupting. In 1905, there was roughly one-fifth the number of college football players as there are today, yet, 18 were killed and 159 severely injured in that one year alone.

Note that. 18 players were killed in 1905. It was so bad that President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to get the game outlawed. The following year? 33 players were killed, at which point the flying wedge was finally banned.

Would it be unfair of me to speculate that as these measures were being contemplated and enacted the same kinds of rhetorical tactics were employed as we’ve heard this past week? After all, the 51 players who died in 1905 and 1906 knew what they were signing up for. It was a violent game and if you legislated out the physicality, well, they might as well play in skirts, right?

In a given NFL week there are roughly 1700 active players. They can say what they want, but I assure you that none of them “signed up” to be killed or crippled by an opponent who believes that the rule book insists on laying people out. And even if the players did assent to such a code, do those players have wives and families who signed up to lose their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons to a game that has forgotten the difference between the ends and the means?

I applaud the NFL’s action because I love football. I love it way too much to see what’s going to happen to it when a player is killed on the field. And if what we saw during Week 6 were allowed to continue, make no mistake – it would only be a matter of time.

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  1. Posted October 25, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The silly part of the reaction is that the NFL didn’t change any rules, they just decided to enforce already existing rules. And there have been tons of player over the years who have bragged about wanting to hurt the players on the other team or knock them out of the game. The reaction to this is idiotic, for the most part.

  2. Posted October 25, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Good point.

    In some players’ heads there seems to be a distinction between knocking a guy out of the game and hurting him. Like “I wanted to hurt him for the next 35:22, but after that he’s good as new.” I’m sure most of these guys aren’t looking to cripple an opponent, but there is a connection between those two kinds of “hurt,” you know?

  3. Russ Wellen
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Re means and ends, remember that the prime motivation for hard hits is to reduce the offensive player’s willingness to play hard the rest of the game.

    It was heartening to see defensive players exhibit some caution this week. All it takes it tightening up the strike zone, if you will, that is, hitting below the neck (as well as above the knees).

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