— The last thing the NFL needs is to see its players carted off the field and transported to the hospital with a life-changing injury. After several brutal helmet-on-helmet hits last Sunday, the league decided to make a statement for the betterment of the game.
Obviously, an NFL player's career could end on any play because of a vicious hit, and that can never be completely removed from the game. A player assumes some amount of risk when he chooses to play football and earn large sums of money.
At the same time, the NFL has a responsibility to protect the players — they are the league’s most valuable commodity. Fans don’t buy tickets and subscribe to high-priced television play-by-play packages to watch referees and cheerleaders.
So the NFL announced $175,000 in fines to three players this week for helmet-to-helmet hits, and starting this Sunday, the league will begin suspending players who break the rules with "dangerous and flagrant" tackles.
The NFL should be praised for making this tough, controversial decision knowing that many fans want the violence to escalate each Sunday. Each week the "Monday Night Football" broadcast begins with two helmets exploding into each other as the players are introduced. The history and success of the sport has been based on its aggressive play, and the NFL has promoted and profited off the violent nature of the game (even selling photos of some of the illegal hits from last Sunday, at least for a time, on NFL.com).
The debate, however, is far from over. How do you tell a middle linebacker or free safety who has been playing football since the sixth grade that he must pull up and take something off certain tackles? What happens if Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis tries to legally hit a running back who is coming straight at him, but that player lifts his helmet at the last second and Lewis can’t avoid the contact? If an elite player gets suspended and misses a playoff game, it can cost his team the opportunity of winning the Super Bowl.
To hope that coaches teach their players to avoid helmet-on-helmet hits is wishful thinking. Coaches want their players to be physical and do whatever it takes to win. Once the player steps on the field, he will make plays on instinct and look to stop an opponent at all costs.
The league has never shied away from its physical, hard-hitting side. NFL Films has glorified brutal tackles from the start, and fans have purchased videos of the most violent plays in NFL history.
The players aren't going to be the ones demanding change, either. They want to remain gladiators, and they will never admit they are concerned about getting hurt. NFL players will tell you that if they play with fear, they have a greater chance of being injured.
Most fans understand the league wants to continue to put out a great product but must do something to stop the most recent trend of helmet-on-helmet hits.
I’ve talked with a high school coach in San Antonio who recently witnessed a 17-year-old quarterback die after a serious blow to the head. I interviewed a current wide receiver who believes that he does not need any mandates from the league to protect himself while he runs routes. A former star safety from the 70’s told me that he is convinced the league is only out to protect the quarterbacks and receivers at the expense of all defensive players.
This past Sunday was a watershed moment in NFL history. The league has made billions of dollars on selling controlled violence but now is worried about the image of the sport moving forward. High-definition television along with more camera angles and instant replay has brought these violent helmet-on-helmet collisions into our living rooms at a more alarming rate and sometimes it is difficult to watch. The NFL executives came to the realization that sooner rather than later a player would be seriously injured if they didn’t do something.
As a member of the media and also a passionate football fan, I just want to continue to watch competitive pro football and hope that these heavy fines and new rules help protect the players and hopefully save some of them from ending up in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.