Penalties. Everywhere penalties.
Let me start off by saying that I am not pro-concussion. I have seen the damage that collisions involving the head can do to NFL players, to college players, and (first-hand) to high school players. Brain damage. Loss of vision. Herniated discs. Temporary paralysis, or not-so-temporary. And that’s not counting the effects that don’t show up until years later, when those players are either through with their careers or about to be, and suddenly their nervous systems begin breaking down. Jobs fall into jeopardy, marriages take damage, children watch their fathers degenerate. It is ugly, it is tragic, and it is not fun to talk about.
And I am certainly not saying that the league shouldn’t do everything it can to prevent this kind of injury. “It’s just the way football is” is a lousy excuse for leaving the door open for young men to be crippled. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way enrollment in football programs in high schools (maybe excluding Texas) around the country is shaping up this season. Way, way down. Plenty of parents — dads as much as moms — don’t want to run the risk of their boys’ quality of life plummeting before they’re old enough to vote.
Now that I have asserted myself on the concussion issue, I have to inject some common sense into this discussion. First of all, according to the best sources, there have been 51 penalties so far because of the new NFL helmet rule, which states that “it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”
Take that well-intended rule and apply it to an (il))logical extreme, and you will have every single play be scrutinized. Every single time a lineman hits another lineman at the line of scrimmage, a whistle blows. Every quarterback sneak, a flag is thrown. Every time a linebacker hits a running back, the game has to stop while yardage is walked off. Games will last 5 hours, and the majority of movement on the field will be of referees back and forth from the cameras in reviewing the plays deemed to be penalties (that’s IF they make it a reviewable call).
And then, if you really want to complicate things, try training the average NFL veteran who has been instinctively lowering his head for years when making a tackle to stop doing so. He’ll demand more money for his trouble, and the coaches will want a bigger salary too for trying to do such a well-nigh-impossible task.
Richard Sherman has said that trying to enforce the new helmet rule is akin to telling a driver that he/she will get a ticket every time he/she touches the lane lines. In practical Bay Area terms, think of how hard it is to traverse Highway 17 at 5pm on a Friday right now, and then multiply the traffic by a factor of 15.
Sadly, the NFL hasn’t asked me for my solution; to be fair, they apparently don’t care about anyone’s solution to this issue, since they said recently there were no changes forthcoming to the rule. But here’s a few thoughts.
If you deliberately, and with 5 yards of preparation time and running start, spear an opponent and lead with your helmet, that should be a penalty. (Yes, deliberately. I know, some people think that’s hard to measure, but Justice Potter Stewart said it best when he was asked about what constituted obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”)
If you spear an opponent and lead with your helmet when that opponent is not in possession of, or is nowhere near, the ball, that should be a penalty.
If you commit what’s known in the NCAA as “targeting” — taking aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball — that should be a penalty. (Hey, don’t knock the NCAA. The rule’s been working fine.)
If you leave your feet to under-cut an opponent by hitting him in the head or neck area, whether or not he has the ball, that should be a penalty.
(Want to throw in an ejection clause for these violations? Fine with me.)
If you lower your head by an inch or two right before you hit an opponent in the course of play — which is what the vast majority of the helmet-rule calls against defenders have been so far this preseason — that should be given a different name.
It is one thing to protect young men from being crippled. It is something else entirely to force young men into being something other than what they are, or to try to make a sport something materially different from what it intrinsically is.
Batten down the hatches, folks. This rule isn’t going anywhere. I just hope the NFL fan base doesn’t either.