New NFL Rules Have Created Confusion For The Same Old Problem
After six months of no NFL football, fans are waking from their long sleep to discover that the league has tried yet again to fix its rules. This time it’s not to increase scoring— although the new rules will probably jack up scoring.
No, the new rules involve calling a personal foul when a defender lowers his head to deliver a hit on an opponent. This penalty is in addition to the penalties for hits on defenceless receivers or hits to the head or knees of a quarterback. This is all in service of reducing injury— particularly brain injury.
The early reactions to trying to eliminate such hits have been unpopular, to say the least, among players, coaches, fans and broadcasters. Removing a technique bred into players since their earliest training is never easy. Penalizing a reflex action on behalf of both players to lower their heads as they brace for contact is likewise going to be problematic.
@TesslerSports So here's a play that my 49ers client Raheem Mostert got an unnecessary roughness penalty on last night for leading with his head... Is this really the way we want to affect the outcome of games this season?”
But, in light of research into brain injuries from football, the sport must do something to assure players and their families that the sport is not a one-way trip to PalookaTown. Forget the cost in lawsuits. Just having parents pull their kids from the sport would kill the NFL’s golden goose.
The CFL and NCAA football have also adopted rules to lessen traumatic contact with the head. The acceptance of those rules has not been universal, to say the least. Broadcasters (never sticklers for the rules) regularly mock the policy. Fans talk about playing flag football.
As the NFL and other leagues wrestle with their new rules regime perhaps they should consult the sister sport of rugby, which has dealt with violence itself. Here’s what I said in my September 2017 I Don’t Like Mondays column on Not The Public Broadcaster,
The answer to curbing some, but not all the injuries, may lie with the sport that spawned North American football in Canada and the U.S. Rugby is a game seemingly as risky as tackle football. But in the years since it was invented around 1832, it has come to grips with the same violent impulses— and cries for restraint— as we now see in the NFL and CFL.
There were deaths and injuries and periodic inquiries into making the sport safer. Medical improvements also forced change. What has rugby learned in its almost 200 years that the North American hybrid can learn so that it pleases both its blood-and-guts fans but also those who don’t want to be spectators to maiming and even death?
The NFL and CFL can learn, as rugby did, that the human body is not equipped for the laser-like striking ability of the modern athlete dressed from head to toe in space-age plastics. Today’s football players are products of training, diet and coaching that enables them to destroy the human body if given a chance.
The world’s best rugby players are also in phenomenal shape, but the governors of the sport have restricted their zone of contact to exclude hits above the head, below the knees or from behind.
They also restrict dangerous pile-driver tackles and flying hits where a player launches himself at another with the intent to injure. Rugby has also managed to largely keep players of equal size pitted against each other, with smaller, faster players rarely straying too close to the massive brutes in the middle.
They’ve also learned that wearing less padding blunts the killer instinct and discourages the feeling of invincibility that many of the players have in football and hockey when they don a helmet. Rugby players exhibit far more of the live-and-let-live spirit because they feel their vulnerability every second on the pitch.
This is not to say rugby doesn’t have problems with injuries— particularly concussions— that bedevil the NFL, CFL and NHL. It is still a brutish, savage sport where will to win comes packaged in punishing scrums or hard tackles.
But they offer some picture of how to reduce injuries. Rugby has an advantage over football in that it is a flowing game. Pro football is episodic, with teams only getting to keep the ball by earning ten yards. In rugby, teams can tactically surrender yards to stiffen afterwards. The ball is turned over far more often than in football. In the NFL you have to make a stand on every play.
Many fans like President Trump will decry the lowering of spectacular hits and getting rid of some of the equipment— particularly the hard-shelled helmet. If the NFL and CFL want to survive, however, they must find a new path forward. One that lessens the chance of catastrophic injury.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.