Head-butting on head-hunting; Who’s really hurt

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – This article was meant to be a feature story on a Jets player during their bye week. To be honest, at 5-1, the Jets are sitting with their feet up and enjoying the view from atop the league. Ho-hum.

A more pressing issue this week has been the coverage and reaction to the league’s re-commitment to player safety. Chris Nimbley wrote a poignant piece on the topic, however for an issue that garners as much attention as this has, I feel compelled to throw my two cents in as well.

Obviously, this news comes to the fore-front after four NFL players sustained head injuries and one collegiate player became paralyzed from the neck down. All of these injuries occurred due to either of the following: an illegal launch or legal lunge, helmet-to-helmet hits, or laying out a defenseless player who is catching or attempting to catch a pass.

The NFL has not implemented any new rules regarding illegal hitting, rather siding to stricter penalties for doing such. On Wednesday, commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo out to every NFL team that was to be read in front of all players and coaches. The memo warned them that anyone who hits an opponent in the head or neck are subject to suspension, even for first time offenders. Additionally, referees will be granted the power to eject such players in appropriate circumstances. Attached with the memo was a slideshow of examples of what is acceptable and what will be considered a “banned hit”.

“Violations of the playing rules that unreasonably put the safety of another player in jeopardy have no place in the game, and that is especially true in the case of hits to the head and neck,” said Goodell in the message.

Such measures are being heightened after player backlash to the hefty fines given to James Harrison and Brandon Meriweather. Defensive players, old and new, have spoken out defending their right to defend with a vengeance. Harrison has been the most out-spoken, not by his words, but by his actions. On Wednesday, Harrison sat out of practice in what could be seen as a semi sit-in protest of the league’s strengthened stance on hitting. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year threatened to retire after questioning the league’s actions. “You’re telling me that everything that they’ve taught me for the last 20-plus years is not the way you’re supposed to play the game anymore,” he said to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. “If that’s the case, I can’t play by those rules. You’re handicapping me.”

Channing Crowder, of the Miami Dolphins, was also adamant about preserving the right to hit hard as he chimed in on the topic.

“If they’re going to keep making us go more and more and more like a feminine sport,we’re going to be wearing pink for every game, not just on the breast cancer months,” Crowder said, per Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post. “They can complain, they can suspend, they can fine and they can do whatever they want, but you can’t stop a man from playing football the way he’s been playing since high school.”

Helmet-to-helmet action, like in this photo here, will not be tolerated by the NFL anymore. Heightened fines, suspensions, and ejections will occur if such hits take place. (JetsInsider.com Photo).

His sarcasm aside, Crowder brings up a valid point. A player can be mindful of the possibilities of a fine or suspension all he wants, however in the split-second he has to react on a play all thought leaves the mind and instincts take over. And if the league wants their players to be mindful of such penalties, then what they’re really asking the players to do is soften their game. The NFL is made up of grid-iron gladiators, who abandon the thought of slowing down in any sense of the term.

Deon Grant, safety for the New York Giants, added, “Just tell us to stop hitting then. Put a flag on us and let us play flag football.”

As there is no clear-cut solution for this problem, there is also no clear end to this story. So this really begs the question how much weight will this issue hold when the time comes to re-construct the collective bargaining agreement. While it’s apparent where the player’s stand (they want to retain their creative right of entertainment and sport), the league and it’s owners are more interested in the sustainability of their players and in return, the game itself.

The league and it’s owners are very much concerned with protecting their strongest assets, the game’s offensive players. At the end of the day, it is the offensive players who bask in the glory of headlines, TV endorsements and NFL jersey sales. They are the ones who keep the owner’s pockets lined with big-faced dignitaries, and keep the fans coming to stadiums. So of course the owners would be in favor changing the game to eliminate head-hunting hits.

John Mara, owner of the Giants, came to the defense of the league and owners last night. “We’re not changing the rules. The only time we do that is in the off-season after a lot of discussion and a lot of review of tape. All we’re saying is the rules are going to be enforced and the penalties are going to be harsher.”  He went on to say, “I don’t think we’re changing the way the game is played. We’re just asking the players to be mindful that some of these vicious hits, particularly when they involve going to the head, have no place in the game.”

He is right, head hits have no place in the game. But then what happens when players stop aiming high and shoot for a player’s livelihood – their legs? The NFL already outlaws chop-blocks and have set-in place the unofficial Tom Brady rule, that prevents a defensive player from diving at a player’s leg when they are already on the ground. So what, are they trading concussions for torn ACL’s?

The result of this disagreement could ultimately be a lynch pin argument in whether a new CBA gets done or if we go a year without football. Offensive and defensive players alike seem disgusted that the league is asking them to tone down something that has helped the NFL reach the pinnacle of sports. Offensive star and league diplomat, Tom Brady, has even sided with the men who try to hurt him for a living. “It’s a dangerous game, it really is. I think we all signed up for this game knowing it was dangerous.”

While we can all agree that no one’s life should be put in jeopardy while on the clock, this issue will not be going away quietly. Unfortunately for the fans of the NFL, it may be us who get hurt the most by this form of helmet-to-helmet hitting.

One Response to “Head-butting on head-hunting; Who’s really hurt”

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