PJ Media

The NFL Jumps the Shark

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.

An exaggeration? Sure. But don’t think that this change in emphasis won’t significantly change the game. SI.Com’s Peter King:

We may look back at last weekend as a seminal one in how defense is played in the NFL. That might be an exaggeration, but this is very high on the NFL’s fix-it agenda, and don’t underestimate what the league will do to protect its image when it feels it’s in crisis mode. And for a league with its antennae up about head injuries, concussions and post-career care of injured players, last weekend may just have been the kind of perfect storm that will change the way defensive players approach big hits.

It’s not as if there weren’t already rules against players who “launch” themselves head first at opponents, seeking to injure rather than attempting only to “hurt” a player and cause a fumble. If the distinction seems lost in the translation, it is simply part of the NFL culture. Trying to hurt someone is fine. Everybody in the league plays hurt at some point, or at several points, during the year. But an effort to actually injure a player — jeopardizing his health and/or career — is against the rules. It’s a fine line that is really a question of intent rather than technique. And I have yet to see a ref whose off-field employment is as a circus soothsayer or Gypsy palm reader.

The subjective evaluation by a referee on the scene of the play has generally been to protect the receiver on these hits anyway. Now the refs knows that the league will be looking over their shoulders when they judge the legality of these collisions which almost certainly means that there will be little room for error by the defensive player when lining up a receiver for a blow. The quarterbacks are already cocooned by the league, as it is illegal to make helmet-to-helmet contact with the signal caller at any time for any reason. The question can be asked is if the league is headed in that direction when it comes to protecting any of their high-value, high-profile players be they quarterbacks, receivers, running backs, or kick returners.

The three players involved in this past weekend’s concussion incidents have been fined for their actions. The Steelers’ James Harrison was fined $75,000 because he was a repeat offender, while the others received fines of $50,000. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Harrison just signed a $20 million contract.

For his part, Harrison appears to be seriously thinking about retiring if he doesn’t think he can perform effectively under the new regime:

I’m going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective,” Harrison said. “If not, I may have to give up playing football.

I really truly hope it’s something that can be done, but the way that things were being explained to me today and the reasoning for it, I don’t feel I can continue to play and be effective and, like I say, not have to worry about injuring someone else or risking injury to myself.

NFL players begin and end their careers with their eyes wide open about injuries. They know full well that on any given Sunday, any given play, their careers can come to a painful end as the result of  being seriously hurt. And if they survive for 5, 10, or 15 years, they know that their post-football life will likely be filled with excruciating pain as the body rebels against the punishment and abuse it received during their playing years getting pounded by opposing players.

This Faustian bargain made between the player and the football gods — a life of misery in exchange for the wild adulation of fans and the wealth of the pharaohs for  playing a kids’ game — admittedly does not include the prospect of being paralyzed for the rest of their lives. But by walking on the field, the player accepts that risk along with the rest. And while the league is bound by conscience and common decency to try and prevent serious injury, it alters the heart and integrity of the game when it seeks to discourage the kind of aggressive play that is at core of what makes the NFL an extraordinary spectacle.

A concussion — any head injury — is serious and should be treated with great caution. The NFL has been trying to change the culture that saw players returning to action before they were completely healed, which may have resulted in additional damage and cognitive problems after the player retired. But the current rules enforcement has seemed more than adequate to deal with the fundamental problem of players deliberately trying to injure an opponent. The question the NFL wants to address — to the detriment of the game — is whether players should be penalized for simply playing the game the way it was meant to be played: hard and mean.

The end result will be to take away more of the excitement and controlled aggression for which the game has become noted. And it sends a message to players that is at once confusing and contradictory: play hard but not too hard.