Monday, February 4, 2013

Roger Goodell. Walking a fine line

From on high, the NFL commissioner gave his "state of the league" address. Either he's terribly naive or else thinks we are.

Roger spoke of trying to eliminate "low" tackles. Well gee, flags now fly for helmet to helmet contact, "horse-collar" tackles draw a personal foul, and on occasion, it appears that just hitting a guy too hard to will result in "unnecessary roughness". So if the Commish has his way and low tackles are outlawed, just where is it that defenders are supposed to tackle a ball carrier anyway?

Maybe it will become something like major league baseball's "strike zone". Once upon a time they used to say the strike zone was from the shoulders to the knees. That was never true. Then they said it was from the armpits to the knees. It was never that either. These days, any pitched ball crossing the plate even at the waistline of a batter is usually called "high" by the home plate umpire. In actuality, the current strike zone is maybe a foot in height, that extends from roughly the lower pelvic area to the knees. Maybe that will be the only place tacklers are allowed to hit in the near future, though I'm not at all sure every tackle being mandated to happen in the groin area is such a good idea either.

Idle thought. Want to cut down on all the concussions? Cut off the top of the helmets and leave their scalps exposed. Guys will think twice before leading with their heads. Ya think?

Sure, in recent years much more attention is being paid to the safety of NFL players during games, and in theory that's a noble idea. Yet the question begins to become -- where exactly is the line to be drawn when it comes to the very nature of what the NFL has always been about and player safety?

Few would doubt that the NFL became the most popular sport in America by a wide margin because of how the game itself has developed. It features highly conditioned athletes that are willing to partake in violent bodily collisions. Over the years, they've become bigger, stronger, and certainly faster. Even with the wonders of modern medical technology, a career can end on any given play.

But that's the thing. Though most of the players are "drafted", it's not like how the US military used to draft soldiers. The future GIs were pretty much obligated to go and serve their country, whether they wanted to or not. Countless thousands of them would eventually experience unimaginable hardships, and even death, because they were conscripted to do so at the will of others.

In the NFL, it's quite the opposite. Young men dream from childhood about someday having the opportunity to play in the NFL. The competition along the way from high school, through college, has a way of culling the herd, and only the best of the best even get a chance to eventually go out there and throw their bodies around in the NFL. It could fairly be said the last guy on the practice squad of the worst team in the entire NFL is an extremely talented football player. And what does he want the most in the whole world? The chance to experience "game action". There's lot of guys few people ever hear of that play on NFL "special teams". Sometimes their job is to basically be a kamikaze running down the field and sacrifice his body to "blow up" a play. Some such high-speed collisions are unbelievably violent, yet these young men not only do it willingly, but know there's hundreds of other guys out there somewhere that would gladly take their job if only they had a chance to do the same thing.

Roger Goodell is certainly aware of that. As player safety continues to be a concern, there's probably a few things he could do about that. One would be eliminating kickoffs altogether. After one team scores, the other gets the ball on their own 20 yard line. But what's to be done about punts? The same type high speed collisions often occur there as well with the coverage team running down the field full bore trying to blast the guy that will catch the ball. I suppose it could be mandated that in lieu of punts and the bodily harm that may occur, they could just move the ball 40 yards or so and give it to the other team. That would cut down on injuries, and also eliminate the need for punters. But it would also eliminate some of the most potentially exciting plays that can oftentimes change the outcome of a game.

Let's face it. The NFL consists of gladiator type contests. It never would have risen to be the gorilla in the room of professional sports without the violence that is inherent in the game. Fans wouldn't go to see, or even tune in, to watch the games if the contests themselves became too "civilized". There's a reason why the fans can work themselves up into a frenzy, and I highly doubt it has anything to do with the precision receivers run their pass routes, the footwork of offensive linemen, or the colors of the uniforms.

So the good Mr. Goodell would appear to be faced with a dilemma. Throw in the owners of the franchises that make big bucks, the concerns of the players' union that would likely have to ratify any major changes in the game through collective bargaining, add the fans, and tweaking the game in the name of safety becomes a very volatile mix.

Further, consider the players themselves. Many have come right out and said they knew what they were getting into when they signed up for the NFL. They went into this with their eyes wide open and are fully aware of the dangers that lurk. Further yet, some players make obscene amounts of money -- upwards of $20 million a year. That's over a million a game. For that matter, even the MINIMUM salary for a rookie is $285,000. Is it any wonder the competition to make an NFL team is so great? Let's get real. Some of those guys likely couldn't pass a fairly administered high school equivalency exam. Where else would they find a job that pays so much?  It's high risk and high reward, and they damn well know it going in.

At that, many players have also come out and voiced their objections to some of the recent rule changes in the name of safety. They seem to think the game is becoming too "sissified". Sure, they might well have a whole different outlook when their playing days are done, and realize their bodies have been irreparably harmed, but in the meantime, who better to speak for the game than the players themselves? If the actual participants wish it to remain a ferocious contest, then who is anybody else to step in and start changing all the rules?

So add it all up. The players relish the challenge. The fans cheer big hits and apparently love the brutality of the sport. The owners likely don't care, as long as the TV megabucks keep flowing and their stadiums sell out. Satellite businesses from sports bars to those that sell NFL paraphernalia rely heavily on the game maintaining it's popularity. If the NFL gravitates too far towards the "No Fun League" that has been mentioned by many, it just might be they'd start to lose some of their popularity. And once it begins to slip, it's no easy task getting it back. Ask the Indy car people, and even NASCAR about that.

Roger Goodell would be well advised to proceed with caution.

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