Well it appears that the NFL won't be trading in the helmets for bright neon flags hanging out of players' pants.
Week six of the NFL season produced $175,000 in fines, ten concussions, and pundits and league officials worried that someone is going to die on the field from the brutality of head-to-head hits. As a result, a new, mid-season rule change was implemented by the league office prior to week seven, with the aim of fining and suspending players for overtly violent and unnecessarily brutal hits.
The days leading up the games produced heated debate on both sides of the argument. Many players expressed concern that the game was going to be ruined. “What they’re trying to say—‘We’re protecting the integrity’—no, you’re not,” Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. “It’s ruining the integrity. It’s not even football anymore. We should just go out there and play two-hand touch Sunday if we can’t make contact.” Ray Lewis, the hard-hitting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, expressed little concern for the risk of injury. Lewis said “My opinion is play the game like that game is supposed to be played, and whatever happens, happens.” Joey Porter of the Arizona Cardinals griped, “There’s no more hitting hard. That’s what our game is about. It’s a gladiator sport...I mean, the whole excitement of people getting hit hard, big plays happening, stuff like that. Just watch—the game is going to change.”
On the flipside, others lauded the rule change, and thought that regardless of the possibility of the game looking different, that it was a positive step. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't seem to be concerned with the game changing because he stated "nothing is more important than protecting our players, at any cost." Likewise, the medical community seemed to be in lockstep with Goodell.
“Anything that reduces a blow to the head, naturally I am in favor of that, because there is less risk and less incidents of concussions or something more serious. If you reduce helmet-to-helmet contact, it will reduce the number of concussions...” said Dr. William Bingaman, vice chairman of the Neurological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Russ Ricci, former Chair of Child Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital commented as well, "we are pleased to see the NFL taking a leadership role in addressing sports related concussions."
So what happened?
Looks like Tillman, Lewis and Porter got a little ahead of themselves.
According to Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of league operations, it was a smashing success. "We like to think we're off to a good start in terms of the new emphasis and the recognition that we are going to play aggressively but well within the rules," Anderson said. "It's a good start."
In thirteen games over last weekend, there were zero penalties for illegal hits, and no suspensions given for illegal hits.
That being said, the problem of the risk of brain injury is still present, despite the new rules. Last week there were still seven players knocked out of games with a concussion, from legal, within-the-rules play, bringing the tally for this NFL season up to sixty-four. That's on pace for the 136 concussions suffered through the end of the regular season. And most alarming, the players still don't seem to have the same concern that the general public and health officials do.
"To be honest with you, I'm not too concerned about the long term health effects of multiple head-first collisions," James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker said. "If that happens it's gonna suck, but hopefully I'll have made enough money and put in enough time that my kids don't have to worry about it. And if I've got to go through a little bit of hell so they don't have to, I'm fine with that."
That is, unfortunately, the sentiment that many NFL players share, that the long term riches and glory are worth the long term risk. Merril Hoge, former Steelers running back who has suffered multiple concussions disagrees. "I understand the thinking of the passion towards the game. But it also tells me [they don't] truly understand. [They haven't] been in [their] home and then went to a restaurant [they've] went to 100 times and not been able to get home three weeks after a concussion like I was. I mean, I was completely lost in this world.”
Ultimately, what did the new rules do to the quality of play last Sunday?
Harrison, who seemed to be the lightning rod of last week's ire from the hit he delivered on the Cleveland Browns' Mohammed Massaquoi (to the tune of a $75,000 fine) believes it has suffered. "That was my least productive game this year," Harrison said, regarding his first post-fine game. "We can still play the game, but it's not the same."
Sour grapes from a defensive player? In addition to the dearth of violent, fine-worthy hits, week seven was also the second highest scoring week in the last twenty years of the NFL.
By Joseph V. Madia, M.D.