Say goodbye to pro football as we knew it. In its continuing assault on what makes the pro game the most watched weekly sporting event in TV history, the NFL powers that be have decreed that hitting an opponent too hard will result in “serious consequences” — presumably, game suspensions and hefty fines.
The league has already taken much of the spontaneity and joy out of the game by banning just about any celebratory action following a touchdown — or even a good play. They have crimped the individuality of such larger than life personalities as Chad Ochocinco by banning his wildly original antics following his scoring a touchdown. Group celebrations were banned following the 1984 season, when the Washington Redskins’ “Fun Bunch” electrified the crowd with their demonstration of unity and joy in the end zone.
Just two Sundays ago, the Dallas Cowboys were assessed a 15-yard penalty (imposed on the ensuing kickoff) for “excessive celebration.” The crime? Offensive tackle Marc Colombo took the ball from tight end Jason Witten who had just scored a touchdown, spiked it, and lost his balance falling to the ground. The refs deemed this a violation of the celebration rule because Colombo left his feet. Dallas kicked off from the 20-yard line and the kick was returned for a touchdown, dealing a huge blow to their comeback hopes.
There are strict rules on what can be displayed on a player’s uniform. There are rules against “taunting” — a particularly maddening rule when one remembers such NFL staples as the “sack dance” and other demonstrative displays that used to rev up the crowd and bring the game alive for home viewers.
In short, any action by any player that demonstrates overt and “excessive” emotion is discouraged. They don’t call it the “No Fun League” for nothing. At times, it seems as if the NFL wants cyborgs for players and soulless machines for teams — a sterilized, homogenized product that offends no one while slowly removing the drama and humanity from the game.
The ostensible reason for these rule changes — that it upsets the other team and could lead to violence outside the confines of the game — is laughable when placed in the context of what the two sides attempt to do to each other for 60 minutes every Sunday. The violence unleashed between the lines during the game is as close to gladiatorial combat that Western civilized nations can come without doling out free bread and unleashing starving lions onto the field. And now, there is even the notion being advanced that two human bodies colliding — the immovable object meeting the irresistible force — can be controlled and managed as if the players were engaged in nothing more strenuous than a game of soccer.
What precipitated this crisis were a series of titanic, head-to-head, pile=driving hits laid on receivers by three different defensive players in four incidents on Sunday. The AP defensive player of the year in 2008, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, laid out two different Cleveland Browns receivers, concussing both. Brandon Meriweather of the New England Patriots made himself into a human missile and launched himself illegally at the Baltimore Ravens’ Todd Heap. And the Atlanta Falcons’ Dunta Robinson took himself out of the game along with the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeSean Jackson with a vicious helmet-leading hit that gave both men concussions.
Add to that the unrelated but still frightening incident at the Rutgers-Army game on Saturday. Rutgers junior Eric LeGrande was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of his head making awkward contact with the shoulder of an Army player, and the hypersensitive league leadership simply panicked and decreed that the subjectivity used in judging these hits by the referees would be narrowed precipitously. That isn’t necessarily the intent of the league. After all, they make the point that there will be no changes in the rules. But the message has been sent to the zebras to get tough on these helmet-leading collisions and the refs are, if nothing else, sensitive to the wishes of those who pay their salaries. In a month, the league will have DBs playing on eggshells to avoid penalties and suspensions.