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.