In the wake of two season-ending knee injuries this preseason, the NFL's vice president of football operations, Ray Anderson, told the Associated Press:
"We are always looking at plays that may elevate themselves, and we do include in that category hits on defenseless players…And certainly the hits to knees to players who have not had the opportunity to protect themselves or are not looking in the direction of where the hit comes from — we have had a couple hits whereby a player was hit below (or at) the knees."
Anderson's comments, while under the guise of "player safety," should be taken for the reason they were given, the same reason the NFL has become draconian in enforcing penalties involving blows to the head: the NFL is desperately trying to avoid litigation.
It's no great coincidence that the NFL's interest in protecting the heads of its players coincided with the initiation of a lawsuit by former players alleging league negligence contributed to lasting brain injuries. While that suit is winding down, the suits in the NFL office are no dummies. In our excessively litigious society, this won't be the end of it.
Even if the plaintiffs suing the NFL recover no damages, damage will be done to "the shield." No pro sports league has built a brand as successful as the NFL's, and no league spends as much time and effort protecting it.
Prolonged court cases would bring about two things, neither of which the NFL wants. First, at the very least, it's bad press. The NFL doesn't want to be seen as the overseers of gladiatorial combat with little regard to the combatants. If that viewpoint became prevalent, it would make fantasy football a little less savory.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the NFL doesn't want to be forced into opening up its books. All sports leagues go to great lengths to keep their ledgers secret, and for good reason. If the players ever found out exactly how much revenue was being generated, they would have a slam-dunk case in front of an arbitrator. I'm guessing fans, doling out hundreds of dollars per game for seats to the NFL's circus, wouldn't view the real financial statements in a positive light either.
The problem is, the NFL is playing a losing game. Given the nature of the game, there are only so many rule changes they can make to avoid injury. A sport that demands overly muscular and strong men to fling their bodies at one another at full speed is going to involve people getting hurt.
We've already seen players, in an effort to avoid the fines that come with "helmet to helmet" contact, start tackling lower. Unsurprisingly, knees are starting to buckle.
The NFL says it's concerned about player safety and will examine the matter thoroughly, but that's just setting a precedent for future court battles. As Mike Florio points out, if the NFL were really trying to protect knees, they would enact new rules now, not wait for 2014.
As for the players, most are confused with what to do. Former players, like ESPN commentator Mike Golic, have gone on record stating they'd prefer the concussions to a potentially career-ending knee injury. Current players, like Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark, are becoming frustrated. To them, it seems as if they're going to be fined no matter where they hit a ball carrier.
"The guys know there is no way possible [to] get fined if [they] go low. It will be one or the other. Guys will hit up high and maybe risk getting a concussion or hurting a shoulder. When you get hit low, the season is going to be over. If they decide to change this rule, they might as well put flags on.”
The NFL has always straddled the line between competitive sport and blood sport. A good portion of the appeal of the game has always been its controlled violence. So as the NFL tries to legislate so they won't have to litigate, they risk alienating their fan base as well.
Where this effort to balance the violence and the injury risk winds up is unclear, but fans should be clear on one thing: it's not about concern for player safety.
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