America was once thought of as a tough, gritty nation. A country of sweat and hard work. Our men were men, and nowhere was that better reflected than on the football field. Names like Butkus, Kramer, Nitschke, Bednarik, and Ditka were known for their blue-collar mentality. Guys like that would clothesline their own grandmother if it meant getting a stop on fourth down. Mess with them, and you got messed up. They relished every hit because contact is at the very core of football.
Now I’m afraid the NFL is trying to change the nature of its great game. This week, the league issued a statement saying players will be suspended for “head shots” and “devastating” hits. The announcement came on the heels of a particularly hard-hitting weekend. Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison sent two Browns players to the sidelines with head injuries. Falcons’ defensive back Dunta Robinson leveled Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson and both men sustained concussions. Patriots’ safety Brandon Merriweather went helmet to helmet with Ravens’ tight end Todd Heap, snapping Heap’s head back and leaving him prone on the turf for several minutes.
Yes, these hits were vicious and violent. Yes, there is a chance one of these collisions could have life-altering consequences. But the NFL overreacted and failed to even define what constitutes a “devastating” hit. Robinson’s hit was certainly devastating, but it was clean. The league disagreed however, and fined Robinson $50,000. Merriweather will also have to pay fifty grand for his hit, and Harrison will be docked $75,000.
Nobody wants to see serious injuries or concussions that could lead to brain damage. But in case the NFL wasn’t aware of this, nobody is playing football against their will. Every player on every NFL roster is fully aware of the risks and potential for bodily harm when they step onto the field. Contact is at the very heart of football, and if players didn’t expect it or want it, they’d take up golf or tennis or bowling.
Dolphins’ linebacker Channing Crowder summed it up perfectly when he said, “A garbage man is going to stink after he gets out of work, because he deals with garbage all day, right? If you play football, you have a chance to get hit in the head. You’re going to get a concussion because you have on a helmet and people are going to hit you with their helmet. So if you don’t want to get hit in the head, don’t play football.”
Brian Urlacher is known as one of the sports true tough guys, and the Bears’ linebacker echoed the sentiments of Crowder. “It’s freaking football. There are going to be big hits. I don’t understand how they can do this after one weekend of hitting. And I can’t understand how they can suspend us for it. I think it’s a bunch of bull (crap).
“You know what we should do? We should just put flags on everybody. Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.”
This new policy is much easier said than done for the NFL. How do you change a defensive player’s mentality? A player is taught to do whatever it takes to separate an offensive player from the football or prevent him from making a catch. Does the safety need to run full speed at a receiver then pull up at the last second? In a league where split second decisions make the difference between stops and touchdowns, can you really expect these guys to forget their training, forget their instincts, and contemplate the consequences of a hit. It’s ridiculous.
Oklahoma City sports radio host Jim Traber likes to rant on what he calls, “the sissification of America.” Well, here’s exhibit A for you, Jim.
The people who want to make football less violent are the same people who want to take fighting out of hockey. Sorry, no can do hippie. Fighting is part of the game, always has been. Hockey players are men who stand up for their teammates by dropping the gloves. It’s the way scores are settled and there’s nothing dirty about it. Every team has players known as “enforcers” who know their roles and know how much that role means to the energy, enthusiasm and overall attitude of their team. You can tinker with other rules all you want, but you can’t take fighting out of hockey because you would be changing the sport at its core.
I don’t see boxing changing its rules. I don’t see the UFC doing anything drastic to protect its fighters. Why? Because these are violent sports. It’s what the fans expect and want to see, and again, the participants know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.
Why doesn’t the NFL look into changing the overtime rules, or the absurd rule that allows coaches to call time-out right before a kicker attempts a field goal? Why doesn’t the league re-examine pass interference or how a receiver has to possess a ball all the way to the ground? Better yet, how about rethinking health insurance and benefits for players after they retire. Right now the NFL only provides medical coverage for five years after retirement. Why not invest some of those billion dollar profits into better insurance or toward improving helmet technology?
Cheap shots and deliberate head to head hits should continue to be fined. Go ahead and suspend players if you want to send a stronger message. But please NFL, don’t ask these players to dial it down a notch. Don’t change the fundamental thing that makes football great. America is a tough country, let’s play our football the same way.