No Easy Answers– Rule Changes in Football

Last week, we read an article about by Mark Tracy that highlighted the recent rule changes by the NFL. Tracy’s article asked the question of when these changes would become so significant that football would no longer be football. With mounting lawsuits and claims by players that they are not protected, it seemed like these rule changes came from the NFL as a response. However, there are questions as to whether the NFL did enough, and what the real long term implications of these rule changes will be.

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The biggest rule change Tracy discusses is the one that declares NFL players can no longer lower their heads in an attempt to gain extra yardage after contact. This seems like a good idea to reduce head collisions, but it still won’t stop hits like this from happening. It should be noted that this hit was technically legal in the sense that the defender led with his shoulder and not his helmet.

While the NFL hopes the new rules might lead to a decrease in hard knocks to the head, James Harrison, a repeat offender for violating the NFL’s safety rules with his vicious hits, had an interesting take on why they are so prevalent in the first place. According to Harrison, players aim to hit high because of the role of non-guaranteed contracts in football. Since the injury period for a concussion is shorter than the injury period for a torn knee ligament, Harrison says players aim high because a player with a head injury has a less likely chance of having his contract cut for injury reasons.

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But the NFL’s more recent move to prevent head injuries by fining players who initiate any helmet to helmet contact, something discussed in the Tracy article, could lead Harrison’s rationale to be irrelevant– since players will most likely put their financial wellbeing ahead of the physical wellbeing of other players.  Instead, another potential issue presents itself—a rise in knee injuries for NFL players.

Jon Bostic of the Chicago Bears was fined $21,000 for this hit, which caused a fumble, but did not significantly injure the other player, while DJ Swearinger of the Houston Texans committed a brutal low tackle on Dustin Keller of the Miami Dolphins. This hit was completely legal, but it tore Keller’s ACL, MCL, PCL, and dislocated his knee. It ended Keller’s 2013 campaign—and some speculated that it would even end his career.

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After the hit, Swearinger defended himself by saying, “With the rules in this era you’ve got to hit low. If I would have hit him high, I would have gotten a fine.” While, some have dismissed Swearinger’s rationale as baloney, Swearinger brings up an interesting question about where the NFL is really headed with these new rules. Past players are unhappy with their health, while current players are unhappy with the new rules that limit their ability to showcase their professional talents. Especially with the statistic that 80% of NFL players are completely broke 5 years after they leave the league, a rise in player contracts getting cut due to heightened levels of knee injuries after these new NFL rules would likely push this number over 80%, as well as create additional unrest between current and former players.

Clearly, the NFL is in quite a predicament. An answer to all of these problems might be hard to come by, but James Harrison offers a few. First off, Harrison claims that the bulk of head injuries are sustained during training camp. Tracy points out in his article that the NFL has recently enacted laws that prevent most tackling in training camp, which will hopefully lead to a reduction in head injuries.

However, if the NFL wants to really reduce head injuries, Harrison says, it will have to sacrifice some revenue in order to do so. Harrison claims that limiting the regular season to 14 games while spacing out the schedule to add time to recover would really be in the best interest of NFL players. This seems like something the NFL would be reluctant to do however, since they are considering adding 2 more games to the already packed schedule.

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Harrison has been a longtime critic of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and probably for good reason. It isn’t fair that the players who generate the billion dollar profits the NFL sees should be put at even greater risk to increase revenue. They should have a say. However, football is a violent game.  It has always been that way, and perhaps Goodell just wants to maximize profits as much as he can.  But Tracy asks the question of if it’s possible to eliminate the violence.

Steve Almond, a longtime supporter of football who has recently given up his fandom and authored the book Against Football, appears to think not. In an interview with the New Yorker, Almond explains his opinion that football is so popular in our society because it quenches our thirst for violence. His reason for refusing to watch football anymore is simple: “it is immoral to watch a sport that causes brain damage.”

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As much as the NFL can create new rules to protect the safety of players, it appears football will always be a violent game with brain damage as a possibly constant byproduct. A poll conducted by Professor Lavaque-Manty showed the consensus of our class thinking that the elimination of tackling from football would not make football the same sport anymore, and this is probably the consensus of most NFL fans– which supports Almond’s argument of why we watch football in the first place.

If the NFL is willing to sacrifice revenue to protect players, it’s possible that player safety can be even enhanced, but the violent nature of football would still most likely persist. If Almond is right in his assertion that we draw pleasure from football because it is a violent game, then the head injuries we are seeing now from former players might not go away. For now, there are no easy answers.

-Joe Shea

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2 thoughts on “No Easy Answers– Rule Changes in Football

  1. Pingback: What would Mill say about playing football? | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  2. This is a very well done blog post. I really enjoyed all of the clips and links to other stories that support the theme of the blog post. It made reading your post much more enjoyable. As for the issue at hand, I believe the NFL is in a tough situation where they want to maximize profits, but keep players safe at the same time. Unfortunately, I believe there is no in between choice for the NFL. They must pick one, safety or money, and focus on improving that in the best way that they can.

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