Friday, October 22, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

The hubbub this past week over the NFL's more rigid enforcement of rules against helmet-to-helmet hits would be laughable, if the subject didn't have such potentially dire consequences. After a rash of helmet-to-helmet hits throughout the league this past Sunday -- resulting in fines for three players -- and the paralyzing of a Rutgers University football player on Saturday, the league decided it had to step in and lay down the proverbial hammer.

To hear players, current and former, talk, this would kill the NFL as we know it. Instead of the hard-hitting game that has become the most popular in America, Commissioner Roger Goodell was seeking to turn the NFL into a two-hand touch league.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison, one of the players fined, threatened to retire, arguing the NFL was no longer allowing him to play the game the only way he knew how. Thankfully, he wised up on Thursday and returned to his team.

Given recent revelations regarding concussions and head injuries, there isn't much the league can do outside of stepping up punishment for these hits. These hits aren't just dangerous for the recipients, either; just look at the hit on Desean Jackson of the Eagles on Sunday. He sustained a concussion, but so did the guy who hit him.

The NFL can't have players launching into each other helmet-first. The helmet is for protection, not a weapon; coaches from Pee Wee to the NFL teach that players should lead with their shoulder pad, aiming for the offensive player's chest area. Aiming for the head, or leading with one's helmet, is what the NFL is aiming for.

The league isn't trying to legislate hitting out of the game.

Is the NFL overreacting? Perhaps; after all, not every helmet-to-helmet hit is intentional. But wouldn't you rather the league overreact than under-react? What if the league did nothing, then we find ourselves watching a player's career end because a hit paralyzed him?

What if, Gods forbid, a player died on the field? That would do more harm to the NFL than any work stoppage ever could.

This isn't even taking into account the long-term health effects of brain injuries. The NFL's benefits package for former players leaves a bit to be desired -- particularly for the players who were in the league before the big-money contracts -- and we're just now seeing how repeated concussions can have consequences down the road.

Sure, Troy Aikman and Steve Young have made nice lives for themselves following their concussion-riddled playing careers, but what about guys like Ricky Waters, who committed suicide last year after suffering from what doctors considered concussion-induced dementia?

The players do have a point in this regard: they know the risks of playing football. They know what can happen on the field, and no one makes them play. They understand any play can be their last, and they're okay with that.

But the NFL has a responsibility to ensure its players are as safe as possible; like auto racing, football will never be 100 percent safe, but that doesn't mean every possible safety measure shouldn't be employed. If you make every effort to keep things from happening, and they do anyway, then so be it.

But the NFL can't afford to have something happen because of the league's negligence. In this instance, being over-reactive is far better than sitting back and doing nothing at all.

The players would do well to mind that and keep their mouths shut.

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