WAKE FOREST, NC, April 1, 2013 ― The issue of unnecessary roughness in the NFL is nothing new. However, today’s NFL has mounted a seemingly hyper-cautious campaign to eliminate injury in the sport. NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, in a Monday Night Football interview in 1979, was quoted saying, “Quarterbacks should wear dresses.”
Ninety percent of the players in the NFL today were not even born when Lambert made that epic statement. Lambert’s words were made in frustration when the NFL imposed fines on him for making hard (but perfectly clean and legal) hits on opposing quarterbacks.
Curious about Jack Lambert? He was from the “Old School” and played the game as it was meant to be played: hard hitting, with the strategic intent of intimidating (not injuring) the opponent. Watch this clip:
In a world that is increasingly “politically-correct,” consider this: Football is a man’s sport. Safety equipment is designed, marketed and sold to accommodate the physical interactions between players. For those who may not know it (and I regret that there may actually be some in this category), professional football is defined as a contact sport. Not only that, but players may get hurt in the process. That is part of the game. It is also a part of life. Why? Death is certain, but life is not. Life is all about risk.
Many occupations and recreational activities involve some degree of risk, including physical injury. The physical risk can be as mundane as carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back pain, or hearing loss due to noise pollution. It can be as dramatic as chemical burns, being mauled by dangerous equipment, or plunging from a construction site. The ultimate risk is life, a risk taken every day by police officers and the military. While we to minimize risk where we can, there is a point at which safety constraints make it impossible to do our job, or enjoy climbing that rock face, or even to go shopping or take a bath.
Stunt doubles assume the risk for actors in difficult or dangerous stunts. The risks are spelled-out in their contracts prior to their taking the job. Patients are informed of risks prior to medical procedures. They are required to sign statements acknowledging the risks. The patient can opt-out of the procedure, though that assumes other risks.
The responsibility for assuming risk is personal; it isn’t just imposed on us, it is our right.
Whether you swing on a trapeze, ride bareback on a horse, or train killer whales at SeaWorld, it is up to you and the audience that pays to watch you to decide how much the risk is worth and whether the gains are worth it. Legislatures might have to step in to guarantee that the assumption of risk is truly free-will and non-fraudulent, and to protect those who aren’t competent to choose for themselves.
Should the NFL be concerned about safety and the health and well being of its players?Absolutely. In fact, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) works with the NFL to ensure that player safety is paramount, but not as much as they should to ensure balance. The culture of the NFL has been under scrutiny for more than a generation. There have been good and necessary changes adopted to discourage players from taking cheap shots that needlessly put other players at risk. We would be remiss if ignored the case of Darryl Stingley, wide receiver for the New England Patriots. Darryl’s career ended after he received a violent hit from Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. Stingley was left paralyzed from the injury.
Tatum’s reputation had earned him the nickname “The Assassin.” His hit on Stingley underscored the need for the NFL to take a hard look at its rules, and the very culture that had become a part of the game.
As a result of Stingley’s injury, the NFL imposed tougher rules. A review of the game on the gridiron has continued to this day. More recently, concerns about concussions has caused the NFL to mandate player restrictions if medical examination shows head trauma from such contact.
There are active lawsuits alleging that the NFL willingly suppressed information about serious risk potential, causing players to unwittingly expose themselves to debilitating injuries. Because of past and potential lawsuits, the NFL is on the defense, and it may be overcompensating in order to create a positive image in its public relations campaign. After all, personal injury lawsuits are big business in America, and lawyers are encouraging current and former NFL players to seek damages from the league.
But rule changes and new stipulations must not be imposed by decree without some careful thought. New rules should still allow the NFL to delivering a product that meets viewer expectations. It is ultimately the players who have to subject themselves to the conditions on the field. It is also the fans and the sponsors who underwrite the activities of the NFL. The players and fans are important stakeholders, and due consideration must be given to their opinions and desires. Changes to the game should be carefully and thoughtfully decided on. Making changes without asking whether the results will meet the stakeholders’ needs and expectations will destroy the game.
Unnecessary roughness is an interesting term. Strongly implicit in it is the idea that there is necessary roughness; some roughness is acceptable, even desirable. It’s when a subjective line is crossed that it the roughness becomes unnecessary. In order for the game to remain the game that fans love to watch and players will be paid large amounts of money to play, necessary roughness will be preserved. Make critical safety concerns paramount, but ensure that the integrity of the game remains without moving it into a powder puff game with occasional contact.
If moves are made to eliminate risk in professional football, then what else will loom on the horizon for other sports?
- Checking another player eliminated in the NHL; too violent?
- Major league baseball catchers can no longer block the plate; collision avoidance?
- Alley-oop passes in the NBA to be outlawed; too many possible injury possibilities?
- Impose 2-ft “free space” around soccer players with the ball; reduce possible kick injuries?
These examples are exaggerations, but is it possible to be so risk-conscious that you water down the finished product to a point where it is no longer recognizable (or desirable) to the customer? Is that the direction the NFL wants to go? If the NFL bureaucracy acts on its own and not in concert with the NFLPA and fan feedback, the game will be regulated into oblivion.
Bill Randall is a retired U.S. Navy Command Master Chief, and resides with his family in Wake Forest, NC.