Safety-First Football is an Oxymoron

America is a country of laws, which is good for everyone. Unfortunately, this also necessitates that it’s a country of lawyers, which is good for a few people and bad for an overwhelming majority. Here’s why: every day, we see rules made about things like how hot your coffee can be or how you cut your grass and they’re made by people who have no business making them. Men who can’t carry or conceive a baby write laws about how women can birth children. Lawmakers regulate minimum-wage pay even though they’ve never worked a minimum-wage job.

Little Giants pad memeThe same is true about the NFL. It’s a great game when everybody plays by the rules, but all of a sudden, non-football entities (lawyers) have taken over and have started ruining the game. Because of a massive lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of the players who have serious bodily and brain issues after retirement, we started seeing the NFL pushed into a corner where it had to change the game to placate this small minority. People who don’t play or know football are writing rules about how other people play football.

Do I care about professional athletes? Yes. I spent so much time caring about them that I decided to write a blog about it. But honestly, what the hell are they expecting when they signed up to play pro football? It’s physical. That’s not a surprise to them. The risk of injury is part of the cost of a pro football salary. Isn’t that something everyone understands?

Lawyers have pushed the NFL and its extremely weak leadership to a point where they have stopped celebrating what makes football exciting and started pretending that it’s something it’s not. If you want evidence of how the League sees itself, check out this video explaining the new rules for the 2013 season.

The most important rule change is that runners and tacklers can no longer lead with the crown of their helmet, a rule change directly aimed at reducing concussions. Or maybe it’s better aimed at reducing liability for concussions. It actually makes a little bit of sense, until you start seeing the penalty in action. It seems to me like the action all happens so fast in a game of football that to label a dangerous tackle as “intentional targeting” requires players to have an unreasonably fast reaction time.

In last weekend’s Missouri-Toledo game, the collegiate version of the rule caught Mizzou linebacker Andrew Wilson for a 15-yard penalty and immediate ejection from the game (since it happened in the second half, he will also sit out the first half of the next game). The hit was on a ball over the middle that a wide receiver didn’t catch. Wilson hit him while he came down from his attempt, and while the contact was definitely helmet-to-helmet, it seems obvious to me that if the receiver had made the catch, it would have been a jarring pass break-up that would make highlight reels showing good pass coverage. Wilson launched himself into the air before the ball reached the receiver, and a lot changed before any contact was made. It’s inhuman to expect him to keep am eye on what is happening with an opposing player up to the millisecond before contact.

photo courtesy St. Louis Post-Dispatch

photo courtesy St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Wilson’s hit clearly wasn’t dirty, but the rules dictated that he be punished as though it were and unfortunately, that includes a grossly over-reaching one game ejection. This new helmet targeting penalty is just another that makes playing effective defense harder in pro and college football. Sure, it could be called either way, but which player is more likely to receive a penalty based on physicality, the one trying to avoid contact or the one whose only purpose is to force other players onto the ground? Just like pass interference, this is a rule that is objective in name, but in practice penalizes the defense drastically more than the offense.

Even more, it’s pretty clear that the NFL didn’t consult the players on how best to protect them from concussions. As soon as the rule was announced, a series of current and former players spoke up in opposition to it. If the NFL were serious about reducing head injuries, a good place to start would be asking the players how they’d like to be protected. Instead, they’re just interested in avoiding liability for injuries.

It just seems so antithetical to the concept of football to create new rules that specify legal and illegal ways to hit someone. If you would have to Terry Bradshaw or Mike Ditka that one day there would be penalties for hitting “defenseless players,” they’d have killed you on the spot. If you’re playing football and not in a position to take contact, you’re not “defenseless,” you’re “bad at football.” All these guys wear state-of-the-art padding at all times and we call them “defenseless”? Even worse, in a ridiculous decision to protect the players who bring in the most money, the NFL expanded the definition of “defenseless player” to include a quarterback after a turnover. No matter where he is on the field, a quarterback in today’s game is virtually untouchable. It’s no wonder several writers and purists have described Goodell’s NFL as going soft.

I’ll leave you with this: This weekend in the NFL, we saw a perfect example of what’s happening to the League. At the end of the Buccaneers/Jets game, New York quarterback Geno Smith was hit out of bounds with only a few second left by Bucs defenseman Lavonte David. The 15 yards from the penalty moved the Jets into field goal range and the Jets won the game on the next play. The announcers called the penalty “stupid” and made plenty of efforts to describe how Smith was hit when he was already clearly out of bounds. Except here’s the thing, he wasn’t out of bounds at all.

Here’s a screen grab from the moment of contact: (seen around 31 seconds in this video):

Lavonte David hits Geno Smith

When you watch it in slow motion, David hits Smith before he steps out of bounds. As far as the rules are concerned, Smith is still in bounds. It’s close, but close doesn’t mean anything. You don’t get six points for being close to the endzone. You don’t get a new set of downs by being 9.999999 yards. In no other aspect of the game is a close equal to definite.

Watch it again in real time and see if you pick up anything else.

Did you see how the Jets bench reacted? Were they scared that their quarterback was hurt? Did they rush over to him to see if he was healthy? No. They immediately cheered. They cheered their own guy taking a cheap shot because they know they get unevenly awarded in the situation. The same is true for running into the kicker penalties. In fact, the bar for that penalty is so low that college teams have actually started intentionally blocking players into their own kickers to reap the rewards of the penalty.

We’ve gotten to a point where penalties are encouraging abuse rather than actually helping anyone.