The anticipated move by the NFL to use suspensions to penalize (some) and deter “head shots” to players has already generated substantial feedback. On ESPN Monday Night Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, and Matt Millen seemed ready to deliver a head shot to Roger Goodell for consideration of such a thing. Their reasoning — football is a “violent game,” “your taking away the physicality,” “this is what fans want to see.” The banality of their comments eerily remind me of scenes from Rollerball (for those alive in the 70s) or Running Man (8os) and at cross purposes with the kind of vilification of the “play-at-any-cost” mentality in North Dallas Forty (film and book).
Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel provides a much more balanced and thoughtful discussion of the issues. As he notes, fines just don’t raise the price high enough to deter overly violent actions. He quotes former NFL safety and heavy hitter Rodney Harrison from NBC’s Sunday night broadcast:
“You didn’t get my attention when you fined me five grand, 10 grand, 15 grand,” Harrison said. “You got my attention when I got suspended, and I had to get away from my teammates, and I disappointed my teammates from not being there.”
Wetzel observes that finding the right balance of deterrence without overly restraining players won’t be easy. Protections for QBs show that, where the protections sometimes make a defensive lineman’s job almost impossible. Nonetheless, the delicacy and difficulty of the balance should not keep the league from trying to extend protections to vulnerable players from very dangerous actions. At one time a Jack Tatum or two roamed the NFL. Now, every team has a Tatum-wannabe or two with dangerous hits repeated several times each Sunday.
I’ll readily admit, this is a visceral issue with me and not purely analytical. As a high school player, I witnessed a rival team send their 225 pound, All-State defensive tackle to nail our kicker (a good size guy) on the opening kickoff (this came in vogue for a few years in the mid 1970s long before the Buddy Ryan-Cowboys incident). The player delivered an unexpected, devastating blow to our kicker just as his foot came back to the ground. Our kicker staggered to his feet. Their player was carted off the field 20 minutes later, paralyzed from a broken neck. Just an unfortunate consequence of a violent game? It was sickening, and even though “legal” by the rules at the time, utterly stupid. It was violence for violence and intimidation — their coach wanted to “send a message.” He wanted the kicker to think about the next kick, just as these hits are meant to deter future receptions over the middle. He sent a message alright — that he was an idiot. The player delivering the hit made it dangerous to himself by leading with the crown of his helmet (as in the DeSean Jackson hit), but even without this, it was a cheap shot on a defenseless player. If that’s “part of the game,” why not change the game?
I have no doubt that some fans want to see these ferocious hits. A few probably even enjoy seeing players knocked out or staggering off the field — should leagues pander to that? Some NHL fans want to see fights. Leagues have to determine their stance on such matters. Personally, I’m siding with Goodell on this. Should current and former players (like Millen, Young, and Dilfer) carry weight. Players input should be heard. A strong case can be made, however, that an outside force like the commissioner needs to set the bounds. There are substantial internal political problems (just as with the steroid issue). Majority voting is no panacea. Wide receivers bear most of the brunt from these shots, but make up only a small voting block. Among current and former football players, even ones who may cringe at some of the shots, there is a high level of “this is football” machismo. Fraternities, of all sorts, usually defend hazing even when it’s dangerous as part of some rite of passage and can use external constraints.