Fines or Fairness?

I understand what the NFL is trying to do with their campaign for player safety, even if it probably isn’t for the right reasons, but they are going about it in the wrong way entirely.

Football is an inherently violent game, a high-contact sport where major collisions, impacts and injuries are sadly inevitable. You simply can’t ever prevent them without making so many changes that we are no longer playing football.

Hell, even flag football people occasionally sees people run into each other, collide heavily and get concussed, accidents happen.

The NFL wants to change the culture of head-hunting and ‘lower the aiming point’ for players looking to make a big hit on a ball-carrier. That’s fair enough, and similar things have been done in other sports, but the way to achieve that is not through draconian fines and suspensions without pay.

Ed Reed was initially suspended for this hit against the Steelers on Sunday Night Football, before the suspension was eventually quashed on appeal. Reed is still being fined $50k for the hit, and yet the NFL’s own head of officiating, the man at the sharp end of this crusade against dangerous play, Ray Anderson, couldn’t come up with an answer to the question of what Reed should have done differently.

Reed didn’t launch himself, he is clearly looking to deliver the hit with his shoulder, but Sanders ducks into the hit to brace himself for impact and Reed has no chance to react to that and change his aiming point. Helmet contact is inevitable simply because your head is sitting atop your shoulders.

Now I don’t have any problem with saying those hits are now illegal. Just because something wasn’t deliberate doesn’t mean it’s not a penalty. If you want to try and make the game safer by eliminating those hits to the head, then I’m on board, but you can’t police that policy by fining players, because these hits are accidents.

Anderson speaking on Mike and Mike on ESPN even admitted that fines aren’t working. “(Fines) are not effective, and particularly when we have a repeat offender, and Ed, unfortunately, is a repeat offender,” Anderson said. “So that it doesn’t have to be a blow-up hit, particularly with a repeat offender if it’s in the head and neck area, it’s going to be severely evaluated and disciplined. We do not have a choice, given the environment, given what we know, to give the benefit of the doubt — change is hard, change is difficult.”

Fines don’t work because Reed isn’t attempting to make an illegal hit. These plays are clumsy not malicious. If you want to change the culture of these types of hits, it’s going to take some time, and you are never going to eradicate them entirely.

The NFL needs to take a leaf out of soccer’s book. The game in the 1970s featured leg breaking tackles regularly. People would launch two-footed towards the ball, taking the ball (maybe) and then the player. Some of them were perfectly legal tackles, but players were getting badly injured, sometimes horrifically, and the game’s governing body decided to make the two-footed lunge illegal.


Soccer’s system of punishments comes through cards. A bad penalty results in a yellow (warning) card, and a very bad penalty (or two yellow cards) results in a red card and an ejection from the game. Two footed tackles result in immediate ejections usually, and an automatic suspension then follows.

Soccer has generally tried to remove a lot of the dangerous lunging tackles along those lines, but sometimes they still happen. Players are late to the tackle and make a bad, dangerous tackle simply because they’ve been beaten by skill or timing. The majority of them are not malicious, but they still happen. Those players still get cards, get ejected, and get suspensions. The game has determined those challenges are not to be tolerated.

But they are not fined.

Soccer understands that you can’t punish players financially for being clumsy. The NFL fines players for everything, because the perception of being proactive and strict on this kind of thing will look good the next time they are sued in court, but it’s not the way to fix the problem, and it’s inherently unfair to players who are getting screwed financially for things largely out of their control.

At times accidental and incidental helmet contact will always happen. Even in their own commercial showing the NFL teaching kids the proper ‘heads up’ tackling technique they show the kid getting tackled taking a helmet to the facemask, jacking his head backwards.


Check this video at 1.39 for a kid getting a face full of helmet – that’s the new safer way!

There is no viable tackling technique that can guarantee no helmet or facemask contact. It’s always going to happen, it will often be completely accidental.

If you want to outlaw Reed-style hits, fine, do what soccer does. Eject Reed if it’s bad enough. If it’s deemed bad enough after the fact suspend him with pay, make the punishment come in the form of missing playing time and not being able to help his team. Don’t take money out of his pocket – significant money at times – for a hit where you can’t even explain what you would ask him to do differently.



3 thoughts on “Fines or Fairness?

  1. Mr. Monson,
    Given the stark number of high profile, illegal hits in the NFL, this is a provocative and timely post that stresses the great need for change. As an ESPN’s SportsCenter addict, I am astounded by the déjà vu of ludicrous blows on Matt Schaub, who within two months, lost a piece of his ear and was kicked in the groin. Football is such a fast-paced game that it is hard to determine a player’s intent for committing an offense. While I acknowledge that many athletes, like Ed Reed, are not malicious, there are some that simply do not like playing by the rules. It is the NFL’s responsibility to hold these players accountable. As Ray Anderson said, “It’s like any part of life where you break the law.” Regardless of the motive, if they commit the crime, then they must do the time. However, what would constitute a fair penalty for this type of “crime?” As you established for cases like Reed’s tackle on Emmanuel Sanders, “Fines don’t work because Reed isn’t attempting to make an illegal hit.” It is evident that the helmet contact was inadvertent and unavoidable. Therefore, was it also unfair to fine Ndamukong Suh for, as he claimed, “inadvertently” kicking Schaub in the groin? Although Suh’s track record suggests otherwise, should motive even be considered in deciding the severity of a punishment? Both Suh and Reed are repeat offenders, so it is obvious that fines are futile in deterring illegal hits, especially when the median NFL player salary is $770,000. Even Suh’s $30,000 fine is insubstantial compared to 17 weekly game checks of $45,295. Instead of trying to analyze the offender’s intentions, the focus should be on finding a more effective reprimand than fines.

    Because of the sport’s inherent violence level, it would be overly optimistic to believe any punishment could completely eradicate illegal hits in the NFL. Although athletes understand the magnitude of harm they may cause on their opponent, very few will actually consider this when they are caught up in the game. As you suggested, evaluating other sports’ rules would be a resourceful way to establish a more effective penalty. While soccer serves as an excellent model, the physicality of football seems better approximated by rugby, hockey, and water polo. When fouls are committed in these sports, the results of the infraction are instituted immediately. Like in soccer, offending players must leave the game in accordance with the severity of the hit. Moreover, in water polo, if a player is excluded, his or her team must play the possession without another substitute. These penalties are successful, because they are unambiguous and instantaneous. Rather than simply targeting a player’s wallet, these consequences can actually affect the outcome of the game. If the NFL were to adopt these rules, I believe we would see a drastic reduction in illegal hits. However, this begs the question: will the coaches, athletes, and fans support such a radical change? I hope that you would agree that if the NFL genuinely wants to improve player safety, this change is necessary.

  2. Nice comment. I agree Rugby is a pretty good analogue actually, and the Sin Bin might not be a bad idea. Players sitting out a quarter. I’d doubt you could make the team play on with a man down though, I think the NFL is too reliant on numbers for that to not have massive effects, but I would be interested to see that as an experiment somewhere.

  3. …major collisions, impacts and injuries are sadly inevitable. You simply can’t ever prevent them without making so many changes that we are no longer playing football.

    I’ll merely point out that the institution of the forward pass changed the game entirely, as well.

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