All things considered the year 2016 means our nation has come a long way, as since our inception 240 years ago it’s been well documented how much has changed for the better. From breakthroughs regarding civil rights and gender equality to advancements in medicine and science, on our best days we’re sincerely a country that prides itself on progress. In fact in most respects we’re likely the most progressive nation in the world, that despite our flaws has the foundation and resources needed to continuously advocate and stimulate change, whereas improvements to our society are endless in the everlasting pursuit of a real world utopia.
And I don’t say that facetiously, I truly admire all the efforts that are made on a daily basis that advance our knowledge and enrich our humanity, and I further applaud those who aren’t content with the idea that ‘life isn’t fair’ - but instead take the initiative to make it more fair - as there’s always work to be done in regards to preserving a quality of life for everyone. With that in mind the 21st century seems as determined as ever before to make improvements in every aspect of society, and now within the spirited social media era there’s officially no limits on what we can change.
Acceptance of alternative lifestyles? Check; Unabashed condemnation of police brutality? Check; Accountability for lack of justice? Not exactly; Abolishment of all discrimination? Not even close. And of course there’s so many others but don’t worry, I didn’t forget one of the most important ones, how about the eradication of a good old fashioned football hit? Check Mate - Game Over…
Well not quite yet… but based on what I saw in the first two weeks of the season… that day is almost upon us. And no I don’t often engage in that type of hyperbole, specifically in regards to the NFL and NCAA Football, both of which are embedded in the fabric of American culture and have far surpassed Baseball in popularity and revenue. Yet throughout recent years the game has gradually and indisputably been marginalized for reasons that are honorable but grossly misguided, all to appease the new Woodwards and Bernsteins who have come up with a shocking narrative - a blockbuster of investigative journalism - the revelation of the century - none other than the mind blowing discovery that football just might be dangerous...
Think I’m over simplifying and convoluting the circumstances? Well let me be more precise and say it more plainly… the fact that Congress recently got involved with the intricacies of a football game is easily the most silly and misappropriated use of government in recent time (including deflategate - which is another debacle in itself). Granted there’s lots of money involved and corporations to protect, and a wide range of other logistics that requires a certain level of due process, but that still doesn’t make football in a courtroom any less ridiculous. How much money was spent on this? Taxpayer or otherwise? Truthfully there’s figures all over the net and honestly I really don’t even want to know. I subscribe to the mindset that until we put an end to poverty and figure out our gun problem we really don’t need Congress focused on football… but maybe that’s just me…
Nonetheless the sport of football certainly has come under fire in recent years, and in fairness this can be attributed to a number of reasons, a few of them undoubtedly legitimate. The main one is the most obvious, hits from football cause concussions amongst a bevy of countless other chronic injuries, and there have been tremendous developments throughout the years that links football related head trauma to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) - a medical fact that has been amplified and dramatized by both Hollywood and Congress alike. Yet it should be noted that the debate likely has less to do with the science and more to do with the NFL’s response to it, or lack thereof considering for years the NFL was either unforthcoming or simply in denial about the issue, and only last March did they publicly concede that their beloved sport is connected to a devastating brain disease.
Thus there is your story, a violent sport that should have always been known to come with great risks was put in a precarious position; should they (the NFL) promote the new findings that emphasizes the negative aspect of their business - or should they leave that up to the medical community and general public to draw their own conclusions on the matter. They chose the latter, and it was a mistake, both morally and ethically, and now for good measure they’ve chosen to compound that mistake by overcompensating for all the bad press with changes to the rules - rules that ultimately will do very little to ensure player ‘safety’ - and rules that simply don’t reflect the very game itself.
Before we go any further let’s take a close look at the rule changes - and see how they’ve subsequently impacted the game.
First let’s start with the NFL; here are the guidelines as specified in the rule book:
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 (Unnecessary roughness) in the NFL rulebook
(f) If a player uses any part of his helmet (including the top/crown and forehead/”hairline” parts) or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily. Although such violent or unnecessary use of the helmet and facemask is impermissible against any opponent, game officials will give special attention in administering this rule to protecting those players who are in virtually defenseless postures, including but not limited to:
(1) Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him; or
(2) Lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the “hairline” or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body; or
(3) “Launching” (springing forward and upward) into a defenseless player, or otherwise striking him in a way that causes the defensive player’s helmet or facemask to forcibly strike the defenseless player’s head, neck, or face—even if the initial contact of the defender’s helmet or facemask is lower than the defenseless player’s neck...
And honestly it goes on and on and on… there’s much more and if I included it all this article would be twenty pages long…. but I get it… player safety is important, and perhaps public perception is even more paramount, yet disregarding any motives or agendas the NFL certainly has adopted a framework that sounds great… at least on paper if nowhere else.
Thus begs the question, is it working? Well that’s not easy to say. On the surface it’s very clear that team doctors and personnel are far more cautious when it comes to in-game head injuries than ever before, even if it’s not exactly fool-proof with a few notable lapses in judgement (see Julian Edelman in SuperBowl XLIX, or Case Keenum in a game last season, or even Cam Newton in the final moments of a game last week.)
Of course no system is perfect, yet there’s also no disputing that since roughly 2010 the NFL has done all that they can to make football more safe, and despite the popular opinion - in some cases they’ve even gone above and beyond.
Let’s look at the statistics…
In 2009 there were 148 unnecessary roughness penalties called on the defense across all positions, and in 2015 that number spiked to 236; 88 more calls resulting in 1,320 more yards in penalty yardage. Now let’s look closer at the biggest offenders, the #1 culprits who these rules were designed for; those who effectively can’t even play their positions anymore - the defensive backs.
In 2009 there were 19 unnecessary roughness penalties called on safeties (strong or free), and that number rose to 35 in 2015, (240 more yards, and 560 yards altogether). Additionally there were 12 of these penalties called against corners in 09 (with only 8 called in 2010 and a low of 6 called in 2011), followed by 25 that were called in 2015, an enormous jump that resulted in 375 yards of penalty yardage - and that of course is in addition to the myriad of other penalties called throughout the game - essentially making a NFL football game a whistle-blowing-flag-parade that is becoming difficult to watch.
This is where what works on paper, doesn’t necessarily translate to the field… as the reality is that these type of penalties are far too nebulous to call, considering how fast and physical the action is, and what turns out being penalized is in so many ways a fundamental aspect of the sport.
No hits don’t need to be dirty and certainly should never be late, and I agree that helmet to helmet (or even shoulder to helmet) that looks deliberate on replay or in real time should be penalized without question. Then again the term deliberate may not be appropriate in this case, as to distinguish intent is realistically impossible considering the speed of the game, and for that matter any hits around the head should come with a consequence. Yet here’s where I’ll catch heat and I welcome it... when it’s a close call, on plays that call for big time collisions yet are still within the realm of good clean defense, it’s vital that officials don’t error on the side of ‘caution,’ but instead error on the side of football… because that’s of course why we’re all watching after all.
Below is just one of many absolutely outrageous calls that doesn’t reflect the true spirit of the game whatsoever… and this is starting to become the norm…
looks like good defense to me...
Now let’s shift to NCAA Football, the highest level of amateur football in which player safety should always be the priority, considering that they’re only student athletes and don’t get paid a dime for all the blood, sweat, and tears that they leave on the field. Then again it’s not all for nothing, the NCAA is also the opportunity of a lifetime for student athletes of any sport, in which a few years (sometimes as few as one year) of stellar performances can be the stepping stone to the big leagues - which among many things is a tax bracket that can change their lives forever.
But of course in order to fulfill that opportunity they need to be able to play the game, and while any notion of the opportunity fading away may seem exaggerated, let’s once again take a look at the statistics and data - which leads to similar conclusions that supports the idea that the game may be in more jeopardy than we realize.
First the rules that were added in 2008:
Targeting and Initiating Contact With the Crown of the Helmet (Rule 9-1-3)
No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.
Targeting and Initiating Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player (Rule 9-1-4)
No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.
Good rules. Solid. Wouldn’t change a thing. The only problem is what came next in 2013, where the NCAA went a step further and added an automatic ejection in addition to the 15 yard penalty. At the time the ejections were subject to video review, yet regardless of the outcome the 15 yard penalty would be enforced no matter what (yes, that last part makes no sense at all, and they corrected it the following season by withdrawing the penalty if indeed the replay showed there was no infraction at all).
Yet the main issue still remains, as when officials look at the replays they’re always operating under the same pretenses, that when in doubt… ‘protect our players.’ Which is great in theory but not when players are being ejected left and right… and only after one offense… there’s not even a warning (penalty without ejection) before a player is completely thrown out of the game… and then subsequently has to sit out the first half of the next game for good measure.
Starting to see the problem? In the 2015 season there were 158 targeting penalties called, while 43 were overturned and 115 were upheld. That’s 115 ejections… many by star players in big moments… and it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider the impact this made in deciding games. let's look at a one play in particular that's become a true reflection of the new NCAA.
I thought that was all part of the game, yet in the start of the 2016 season there were 16 targeting penalties in the first week of the season, which puts us on pace for 208 targeting infractions over the course of the year - a dramatic increase from the 158 from last season. And yes of course the vast majority of these are likely to lead to ejections, and while that sounds like a lot to begin with, it’s even more of an issue when you look at further examples of how poorly the rules are interpreted...
Danny Kanell (@dannykanell)
Stewart Mandel (@slmandel)
Stewart Mandel (@slmandel)
Now let’s get back to the almighty NFL, we didn’t even get a chance to talk about the endangered and soon to be extinct kicking game! In 2011 the NFL moved the kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35 yard line to minimize the high-speed collisions, thus practically guaranteeing a touchback more times than not - and that’s exactly how it played out.
In 2010, before the new rule went into effect, teams returned kickoffs 80.1% of the time - kickoff returns were a major part of the game (I still remember when Ron Dixon took the opening kick to the house against the Eagles in the 1st rd of the 2000 playoffs, the old Giants Stadium was never more electric). The following season, the number decisively dropped to 53.5%, and has steadily declined ever since with last season being the all time low of 41.1%.
But of course that wasn’t enough. 4 returns out of 10 kickoffs is apparently too dangerous for the today’s hypersensitive world, so the NFL decided to give receiving teams an incentive to not return the kick - moving up a touchback from the 20 to the 25 yard line. Essentially it’s a reward for doing nothing… do less… and we’ll take care of you… and once again despite their intentions their methods look ridiculous.
"Do you want the kicking game in the game or not in the game?" Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers told reporters at a league meeting. "If it's in the game, let's kick it and return it and let's play ... let's not reward a decision not to compete with 5 extra yards."
And while 5 yards may seem minuscule the change is actually critical. Only one team last season (Minnesota Vikings) started their drives on average past the 25 yard line. Every other team started drives on average inside the 25, including 12 teams that started on the 21 or further in. The difference is even more crucial when you look at touchdown percentages. In 2015, when teams accepted a touchback and started from the 20, their touchdown percentage was 17.9. When they ran it out and started on or outside the 25-yard line, that percentage jumped to 20.8. Of course on the surface that doesn’t seem like much, but in a game of inches it’s certainly enough to win or lose football games.
And then comes the impact on personnel. Remember Devin Hester and Donte Hall? Well their contemporaries of today may not even make NFL teams, let alone be made available for electrifying returns that were once some of the most spectacular moments that sports had to offer. Take Trindon Holliday for example, the return specialist who hasn’t been able to find a team who wants him since his days with the Broncos in 2013.
In November of 2012, Holliday took a kick back 105 yards which is the longest play in Broncos history, and only a week later returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown as well. That same postseason the Broncos were hosting the Ravens in the 1st rd, and Holliday returned a punt 90 yards, which is the longest postseason punt return in NFL history. In that same game however, Holliday also returned a kickoff 104 yards, making him the only player in NFL history to have a punt return and a kick return go for touchdowns in a postseason game. He had 256 total return yards in that one single game… and then followed it up with two special teams touchdowns in the first four games of the following season… before opposing teams started taking advantages of the new rules and Trindon Holliday never played another meaningful down again.
Mike Westhoff, former Special Teams Coach for the NY Jets broke it down perfectly a few years ago when he said, “Holliday has only had a chance to return three kickoffs this season ; the rest were touchbacks. So this play that gets stadiums crazy and can change the momentum of a game in an instant, this play that gives Holliday a chance to make an NFL Films memory, has been mostly eliminated. Three kick returns for Holliday in four games… that’s good for the game? I don’t think it is…. [bottom line is] we’re in the entertainment business, and the league has taken away a lot of entertaining plays."
Westoff also added “When I coached, I wanted to develop the next Devin Hester, but I also wanted to develop players who could stop Devin Hester. It’s fun on both sides…” And now we’re undeniably taking away from that fun... marginalizing the entertainment value… and we really need to start asking the question why…
Yes football is dangerous… always has been always will be… but here’s something else that’s true about football… YOU DON’T HAVE TO PARTICIPATE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO… that simple… nobody makes somebody play football… people want to play football… it’s one of our greatest traditions that brings people together perhaps more than anything else in the world (check the SuperBowl ratings), that also happens to pose no risk to anyone but the participants involved (vastly different than so many of other traditions that adversely affects others), and when played at the highest levels also comes with the greatest rewards a man could ever dream of.
There are 7.125 billion people in the world, 318.9 million people in the United States, and about 120 million of those people are men that are eligible to play football at some point in their lifetime. Based on data from the National Federation of State High School Associations approximately 1,087,000 boys play high school football, and only 6% of high school seniors will go on to play football in college. From there only 1.6% of NCAA athletes will make it to the NFL… making it one of the most coveted and selective groups in the world.
Now let’s talk about the money…
12 quarterbacks in the upcoming season will make more than 20 million dollars this season. From there a wide range of players at other positions make tens of million dollars, while on average the typical NFL football player makes around $860,000 per year. On the lowest end of the spectrum the minimum NFL salary is $435,000 per year, and across the 1,696 active NFL players there will be 3.6 billion dollars split between them all. And that doesn’t include endorsements and other ventures that in some cases even surpasses the money they make in football. Even a practice player in the NFL makes about 7 grand per week! That puts them well over 100K per year for only a few months work.... clearly playing football is worth it for those who make it…
Just for perspective here is a graph of the top 20 occupations in the United States... Compare that to the 860,000 average salary in the NFL and try telling me that playing professional football doesn’t look like a damn good deal…
So what is all the hysteria about? While developments had been ongoing for some time behind the scenes, they came to a head when more than 4,500 former players sued the league and settled in 2013 for $765 million, financial compensation for a number of health issues such as Alzheimers, Dementia, and of course CTE. Then two years later the blockbuster film Concussion was released under critical acclaim, leaving the NFL in unfamiliar territory considering it was likely the first time in their celebrated history that they were portrayed in such a negative light.
While both those incidents go hand in hand I think it’s necessary to separate the two. Though it may be obvious today that football isn’t particularly in the best interest of good health - twenty, thirty, and forty years ago players may have believed those risks to be only temporary, with little concern for their well being in the long term. And even if you think that’s somewhat foolish - that football from day one was always a dangerous sport and nobody should have ever thought otherwise - in the spirit of compassion it’s a nice thought that the former players would be ‘taken care of,’ especially when you consider how the NFL makes more money than they know what to do with, and have plenty of it to go around and then some.
We also should give the NFL some credit, by now they seemingly have dedicated themselves to righting their wrongs by committing to every aspect of player safety, and even just this week it was announced that the NFL would be providing another $100 million for engineering advancements and medical research, on top of the hundreds of millions that they've already donated to the cause. Let's also not forget that they also have eliminated any perception that they encourage head injuries, even going back to 2006 when they phased out their patented Monday Night Football helmet clash.
On the flip side however, do they really need to change the game today? Are we sure that’s really necessary… because honestly who are we fooling? THE GAME WILL ALWAYS BE DANGEROUS… NO WAY AROUND IT… and those who choose to play… KNOW THE RISKS… and honestly that’s all there should be to it. Make each and every NCAA and NFL football player take a seminar and sign a waiver, and now nobody can claim ignorance. That simple.
No Risk No Reward, a phrase that defines the principles of our democracy in every way. Those who achieve greatness often have to either overcome or endure some kind of risk to get there, and I don’t see how playing football should be thought of as anything different. Yet recently President Obama said less than 10 words about the sport that was anything but an endorsement...
"I would not let my son play pro football" ... President Obama said...
strong words, however he did add the following
"At this point, there's a little bit of caveat emptor. These guys, they know what they're doing. They know what they're buying into. It is no longer a secret. It's sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?"
I do know, I get it, and I suppose he wouldn’t let his son join the military either. Certainly not considering the risk of loss of life as well as the prevalence of not only PTSD, but also the recent findings that CTE has been linked to military veterans as well. Yet of course there’s so many other careers that are prone to physical or mental anguish so we shouldn’t stop there. Certainly he wouldn’t let his son be a boxer, a martial artist, a hockey player, a stuntman, a pilot, a policeman, a firefighter, a stockbroker, or even a politician for that matter. All of those professions can cause all kinds of issues that can be debilitating to an individual’s quality of life, and therefore one could only wonder why football is the only one that’s been scapegoated.
My best guess is that it’s because it’s the most popular… and honestly if that’s the case then Congress should be ashamed of themselves. The popularity of something should have no bearing on any legislature regarding athletics or otherwise, and that’s if you even believe Congress should be involved with athletics in the first place. As of today there have been 522 murders in Chicago this year (already more than last year with 4 months to go), there’s about 47 million people in poverty across the nation, and the national debt is about to reach 20 trillion… I’d say Congress has plenty enough to worry about. While sports aren’t necessarily perfect and come with imminent risks that are unavoidable, they are also the embodiment of some of our best qualities on full display, in which the competition defines not only our courage - but the unlimited potential we have inside of us to do what no man or woman has ever done before.
The bottom line is this, there is so much that’s wrong in the world that we’ll probably never get it all right, yet at the same time I’m ready to be on the front lines for any cause that really matters. With that in mind we all need to prioritize and think about all this with perspective - considering that in a universe that has so many problems, we can all be thankful to know that football isn’t one of them.