The League Knows Best: How the Nanny State Has Invaded the NFL

The nanny state surrounds us. At every level of government politicians legislate and bureaucrats regulate in the name of our own good. The news media dole out tips and suggestions as if viewers and readers had no common sense. These days, we even have unelected officials trying to tell us what to eat. So, you’d hope that the one place we could escape the nanny state would be the sports world, right?


This nanny statism in sports isn’t new. In his Pictorial History of the University of Georgia, F. N. Boney, a former professor of mine, recounts how a tragic accident nearly led to the abolition of football in Georgia, thanks so some well-meaning legislators:

When a game against Virginia in Atlanta in 1897 ended in the death of a Georgia player, Von Gammon, a drive to abolish the sport developed. All over the nation football was causing many serious injuries and some deaths. A bill abolishing football sailed through the state legislature, but [professor and pioneering football coach Charles] Herty continued to champion the game, insisting that better facilities and equipment would eliminate excessive dangers, and Von Gammon’s mother defended Herty and football, the game her son “held so dear.” Governor William Y. Atkinson had graduated in law from the university in 1877 and had been a trustee in 1891. A sports enthusiast, he had witnessed the fatal game in Atlanta. After much thought, he refused to sign the bill, and football survived in Georgia.

Of course, there is much to be said about ensuring safety and technology has gone a long way toward making any game less dangerous. Unfortunately, it seems that throughout professional sports, especially in the NFL, the league offices are stepping in to make changes, but players and fans alike think that rule changes go too far.


In 2010, the NFL changed the rule regarding helmet-to-helmet contact. The new rule, which stemmed from a rash of concussions caused by defensive players leading with their helmets, assesses a 15-yard penalty for “A tackler using his helmet to butt, spear, or ram an opponent” or “Any player who uses the top of his helmet unnecessarily.” It’s true that a helmet-to-helmet hit is potentially dangerous, but many instances are not made with malicious intent. The rule fails to take into account that a player in midair cannot alter the direction of his body.

One writer surveyed the New York Giants’ locker room for comment:

“Just tell us to stop hitting … put a flag on us and let us play flag football,” safety Deon Grant said. “If you teach how the NFL is telling us to play at Pop Warner, they’ll never get drafted because they’ll be soft. They’ll be questioned coming out of college. They may not even get a scholarship. ‘He doesn’t really want to tackle.’ ”

On and on it went, around the locker room.

“Insane,” Brandon Jacobs said, “just insane.”

Journalists and commentators began to notice that the rule was applied inconsistently, particularly where protecting quarterbacks was concerned. (That’s par for the course in the NFL, where quarterbacks seems to be in a higher class all their own.) One columnist wrote:

And the refs and the league clearly aren’t all on the same page for what constitutes a flagworthy hit.

The inconsistency is maddening… If the NFL wants to get serious about protecting and punishing everybody equally and fairly, they’d allow instant replay on plays like this; or consider suspensions for particularly egregious offenses.

Another rule, enacted just before this season, moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35. The idea was to eliminate injuries by preventing longer kickoff returns. Fans don’t like this rule because it deprives them of potentially explosive and exciting kickoff returns. Players have a different concern. They see it as the NFL eliminating jobs and roster spots:

Former Tennessee Titans safety Donnie Nickey is the latest player to complain about the league’s kickoff rules change, saying in an email to the (Nashville) Tennessean that commissioner Roger Goodell is “eliminating jobs” in his quest to improve player safety.

“I think the NFL is destroying the true game of football and the physicality that America has grown to love. For someone who has never played the game to make so many changes unchecked is criminal. Paul Brown is rolling over in his grave because of all the changes made in the name of ‘player safety,’ ” Nickey wrote in the email to the newspaper.


“It’s an injustice to the game and the men who have made their living covering kickoffs and sacrificing their bodies to have their jobs made obsolete,” he wrote in the email to the newspaper.


Cleveland Browns kick returner Josh Cribbs, the league’s career leader with eight kickoff returns for touchdowns, has been irate since owners, citing the need to protect players from violent collisions, announced the change during the lockout in March. Owners voted 26-6 to approve the rule change.

“I don’t see (injury) stats behind it, and that’s what the issue was,” Cribbs said last week. “There’s no stats to back it up. Their intentions are good, but the stats aren’t there to back up the reasoning.”

In the preseason the new rule did make a difference. Thirty-seven percent of kickoffs during the 2011 preseason resulted in touchbacks, compared to 16% in 2010. There’s no word on whether injuries have decreased.

It’s not just in the area of safety that the NFL rules with an iron fist. The league is also stringent when it comes to coaches criticizing referees. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that while coaches and owners can speak to the league office freely about problems with officiating, public comments are subject to fines — even when the refs are wrong.

In 2003, then-Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick was fined $15,000 for criticizing a call and stating that he was in favor of the instant replay. In 2008, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was levied the same penalty for expressing his opinions on a single call. A week later, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was hit with $25,000 for speaking ill of the officials. Jones’ punishment was larger because “owners are held to a higher standard.”

Just last year, then-Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress was fined a whopping $35,000 for complaining about the “worst officiated game I’ve seen.” These are just a few examples of the obvious fact that, in the eyes of the NFL, the officials are above reproach, even when they are wrong.

Another way in which the NFL is flexing its nanny state muscle is through instant replay reviews of plays. Every week countless plays are reviewed, whether through challenges from coaches or the official in the booth. During most of these reviews the telecasts cut to commercials, which of course generates increasing advertising revenue for the league.

This year, a new rule was added to the book, one which requires the officials to now review every scoring play:

If an official rules a score (touchdown, field goal, safety or extra point) during a game, the replay official will automatically review the play. If there is any question as to whether the ruling is correct, they will buzz down to the referee and ask him to come to the monitor to review the play. If the replay official confirms the ruling is correct, they will buzz the referee indicating he is clear to let the scoring team attempt the extra point, or kick off if the scoring play was a field goal, safety or extra-point attempt. A coach will not be allowed to challenge the ruling of a score. The intent is to save the coach from having to challenge the ruling of a score and, thus, increase his chances of not running out of challenges or timeouts.

If you’re thinking that the new rule will lengthen games, you’re exactly right. And football fans aren’t happy. As one blogger writes:

At one point, during the [Philadelphia-Atlanta] game, there were 4 reviews in 5 plays.  It took 16 minutes to iron out 1:02 of game time.

It makes the game boring when you have more time to socialize than watch, that’s a fact.  When we see more commercials than football for certain periods of time, it’s just flat out fan pimping. The thing you have to keep in mind, as a fan of the game, is that every time they cut to commercial they make more money.  Aside from possibly being the root of injuries, the reviews are probably designed and cooked in to the NFL cake this season.

Not only are the play stops causing physical injuries for the players, they are causing mental injuries for the fans.  Through our own research this weekend we estimate every game in the NFL is approximately 12 minutes longer than it should be due to reviews.

Of course, that’s 12 more minutes of marketing to fans and viewers, as well as 12 more minutes of advertising revenue.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with making money, but fans clearly don’t tune in to NFL games for the commercials.

Whether it’s under the guise of protecting players from injury, officials from criticism, or the integrity of the calls from critical viewers, it’s clear the NFL wants to have its way. To many fans, this Nanny Statism by the league is robbing the game of the excitement that fans know and love. It’s indicative of the same nanny state attitudes that have run rampant throughout government and American culture. I’d say the fans should speak up, but apparently the league knows better than they do.

Editor’s Note: This post was amended after publication.



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