It has been staggering to watch former and current NFL players parade across ESPN and sports radio airwaves this week, lamenting the death of their beloved game, in the wake of new penalties for illegal hits.Pittsburgh’s James Harrison is even threatening to retire if he can’t play the game the way he loves to. (Viciously.)
They’re right, of course—the hard-hitting, smash-mouth game of football is dying. And it needs to die.
One of the most passionate defenders of the current game was Mark Schlereth, a former player turned analyst, who gave an angry rant to SportsCenter viewers this morning, attacking the league for its new stance on head-hunting hits. Schlereth is absolutely right that football is and has been about chaotic speed and violent collisions. Players don’t tackle anymore–they hit. It has been this way for a long time.
But what guys like Schlereth and Harrison and Matt Millen don’t get, is that football can’t be about hitting anymore. Not if the game is going to survive into the next decade. And if players can’t adapt, they’ll be out of work.
Last weekend’s hits were not isolated incidents. They happen all the time. They will only get worse as players continue to get bigger and faster and stronger. Almost every week we get a story of another NFL veteran left crippled or mentally addled by their football-playing days. And these are guys who played long before the current era where world-class sprinters play linebacker and safeties became guided missiles.
The game is more brutal than even Mark Schlereth remembers and he retired just 10 years ago. Fans are sick of seeing players carted off the field every week. Schlereth brags about his busted knee as a point of pride, but he’s one of the lucky ones. Many have suffered and will suffer far more than he has. Does football really have to be that way to keep America happy?
There is a limit to the violence sports fans can take and we are rapidly nearing it.
But all of this talk doesn’t even address the most important point, which Mike Florio re-emphasised today. The NFL did not change any rules. The hits that they plan to suspend people for are already illegal. The only reason Harrison and teammate Ryan Clark (and many others) have made a living dishing out this punishment is because the league chose to look the other way. The powers that be simply cannot afford to do that anymore and the suspensions and fines will acknowledge this.
James Harrison says he wants to “hurt” people, not injure them. But James Harrison and doesn’t get to draw that line. Eric LeGrand probably just wanted to “hurt” someone and he ended up with a broken neck. Miami linebacker Channing Crowder says that if the NFL is going to give him a helmet, he’s going to use it to “knock somebody out,” blithely choosing to ignore the fact that he’s also giving concussions to himself.
No one can control the moment when a solid hit becomes a concussion, but they can control the way they approach the game in order to minimize those moments. If Harrison and Crowder can’t cope with that new approach, maybe they should find another business.
(Crowder says the latest NFL move is about money, as if that were not the reason he is so eager to knock people’s heads off. Good luck finding another profession that isn’t boxing that will pay you millions to do so.)
Schlereth is also right that the NFL is culpable here. They do market the hard-hitting DVDs and they’re the ones who want an 18-game season and they have closed their eyes as players brutalized each other for years. (The image to the right comes from a Verizon ad that aired before the Schlereth video on ESPN.com) That has to stop too. The league should be held to account if they don’t stop marketing pain. However, their failure to take responsibility in the past, should not be grounds to attack them for taking it now.What this week has shown us is that the NFL knows, deep down that changes must be made. The changes may come slowly and painfully, but they will be made and the game will adapt and survive. The hits will decrease, the league will become safer and young men won’t have submit to a lifetime of painful injuries to play football for a living.
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