For a long time now, we have been hearing a lot of talk about how the NFL is becoming more and more weary about the effects of concussions and also how teams practice their craft to engineer big hits. From the numerous fines on rougher players like James Harrison to Bountygate to the increased concussion testing, one thing is clear – change is coming to the NFL.
It’s about time.
Looking back at when we first learnt about sport as kids, remember what we were told? Sport is about competition and striving to be the best that you can be. It’s about doing your best to beat the other player by displaying your own talents. It’s partly about winning but also partly abot knowing that you went out and played your hardest to match or beat the talent of those who opposed you.
When sports first turned professional, things changed. No longer was it just about the competition or being the best. Money changed the culture of sports to make it more about winning than about the actual competition on the field. With contracts for players becoming available, big money sponsorships and endorsements rolling in, things got a bunch more serious as we found sports were taken over by those who wanted to win above all else. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the NFL.
As professionalism took over the sport, we began to see new tactics being used. Coaches were beginning to focus on different ways to immobilise opposing players. The term “hit him as hard as you can so that he stays down” became something of an institution in professional football. If there is one thing that NFL players and coaches understood it is that if you took an opposing player out of the game then that was one less weapon you had to worry about defending.
For a long time, practices have been a part of the NFL regarding big hits that those on the outside would find repugnant. In the past year, the public has had a look behind the curtain as the Bountygate scandal has filled the headlines of not only sports publications but also mainstream media too. Those who didn’t know the game well were shocked to find out that teams actually encouraged their players to do what they could to take out their opposition so long as it was within the confines of the rules. It has now become widely known that while there may or may not be “pay to injure” programmes on NFL teams there are certainly protocols in place whereby players are rewarded for big hits and big plays. The problem with this is that such incentives have led to some players going over the top and doing things that cause injury to other players.
When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell first announced that penalties would be laid down against New Orleans Saints players, the public was up in arms and calling for tougher sanctions while players immediately sided with the Saints. At the time this was viewed by many as players simply showing camaraderie – a fair assumption given that we weren’t far removed from the lockout – but looking back we can now realise that it was more about players understanding that this was simply a part of the game that was, in their eyes, being misinterpreted as dirty play.
Now we have a real sense that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is determined to change all that.
If there is one thing that the Bountygate saga has done, it is that people are now far more aware of the way NFL defenses operate than ever before. In the past, we have heard much complaining from the public about the various rules that have been instituted in recent years regarding player safety and how it is getting harder and harder to get big hits on quarterbacks. Spectators would crave seeing the tackles and sacks that looked so devastating. There were packages on networks like ESPN which would show blow after blow in succession to help meet the demand from their audiences.
Now that is all beginning to change. There are still plenty of fans who want to see the big hits and plenty more who believe that the NFL shouldn’t be trying to curb defenses from doing things the old way. Yet more and more we are seeing fans who have grown up in an era where quarterbacks are harder to hit and who are being educated about player safety. This new emerging fan base has been getting more and more vocal about changing things to make the NFL a safer sport. What they don’t know is that they have been molded to think this way.
You see, it has been the goal for quite some time of both owners and NFL officials to change the way the game is played. Successive NFL Commissioners have been working to get rule changes through to protect players – that much is obvious – but what most of the public don’t realise is that the NFL ownership group are a big part of this also. The power of the NFL Commissioner comes from the owners who not only allow an NFL Commissioner to keep his job but also are the ones on vote on any rule changes that come through. Such change as we have seen in the NFL in recent years would be impossible without the co-operation of a majority of the owners of NFL teams.
The manipulation of the public by both the NFL Commissioner and the owners is still getting up a head of steam but it is progressing. Profits for the game are as high as ever despite the numerous changes to the game. The increase in fines for breaking the new rules has put the spotlight on these rule changes and the reasons for them. We have had numerous studies coming out about the effects of certain hits on players and especially to do with helmet to helmet contact.
Then we get to the biggest issue of all and the biggest driver of change in the NFL – concussions. As most of you know, there have been scores of former NFL players coming forward who have been developing neurological symptoms and illnesses due to the battering their heads took when concussion protocols weren’t very extensive if they were practised at all. This surge of new information – and the lawsuits upon the NFL that have come along with it – is at the heart of why the NFL has been pushing for culture change in the sport. You see, if you simply change the rules but don’t change the way players think and act then in the end you will still have those who will choose to ignore the mounting scientific evidence of what the big hits and rough plays do to the human body.
Now I realise that the players have some very good points – they were taught from a young age that the game is to be played a certain way and that changing is hard. Just the other day, frequently fined Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison came out and noted that he had hesitated when going to lay a hit on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick because Vick’s helmet had come down to the point where if Harrison had hit he would have been penalised. He spoke of how difficult this was for him to adjust to. Thing is though that this is exactly what the NFL is aiming for – they WANT players to hesitate in this way.
I can hear the protests now. “Doesn’t that mean that defensive players can’t hit guys anymore?”. “Won’t this make defense bad?”. The answer is no – and we’re seeing the solution already in youth football. One of the biggest initiatives the NFL has been pushing is that players need to be taught from the very first time they play football the right and wrong ways to tackle. The techniques that have been taught previously need to be refined in order to make the game safer. The new techniques taught can have the same effect as those used by defenses now but in doing so players are better protected from injury.
Just last Wednesday, Commissioner Goodell was at a youth football camp that was teaching the new “heads up tackling” in which the coaches and observers were watching to make sure the kids kept their heads out of the play. This reinforcement of the lessons taught regarding this type of play is what will eventually change the culture of the NFL for good. While at this camp, Goodell had this to say regarding how things were changing:
“By the emphasis on the rules, coaches and players have to adjust their techniques. And they proved that they can do that, and they’ve done that effectively and can still play at a very high level. That’s what we’re talking about when we say the game has to change — certain aspects and those techniques and the culture.”
Whether the naysayers like it or not, change is coming. There is no stopping it now that the technical adjustments are being put in place. The time of the hard nosed, knock your teeth out gridiron of the past is almost at an end. The NFL is transitioning to a new way to play the game. As fans we have two choices – accept it and enjoy the game for what it is or reject it and stop watching. Somehow I doubt the NFL will lose enough fans to make a difference.