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Subjectivity of ‘Player Safety’ will be downfall of Goodell

This is Part Two in my look at the State of the NFL following the death of Junior Seau and the repercussions from ‘BountyGate.’

 In Part One, I addressed the fact that players, owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell must come together to do something for players who leave the game for good. Whether it be in the form of lectures, classes, financial stability lessons or a combination of all of them, something must be done to curb the epidemic of players going bankrupt and ending up mentally and emotionally depleted.

 As all of you know, Roger Goodell has made player safety his top priority as the Commissioner of the National Football League and like me, you know there is some credence to it but in the end we know it’s about money. Money in the form of legal ramifications as more and more players sue the league for not taking care of them. The problem for Goodell is how does he make the game safer without eliminating the aggressiveness, intimidation and violence that the majority of fans and players have grown up with?

 I do agree with Goodell that there needs to be changes. I have never denied this despite my complete loathing of his ‘player safety’ mandates. Players must learn to not lead with their helmet and especially the crown. This can result in catastrophic injuries not only to the opponent but also to themselves. So yes, there needs to be some attention paid ‘to leading with the helmet,’ but where the Commissioner and the league are failing is on the field itself.

 The rules on an illegal hit or too subjective. Ask any NFL official in a private, unrecorded moment and I guarantee you they say throwing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness flag in today’s NFL is one of the toughest calls they have to make. In a matter of literally a split-second, they must decide whether a collision was legal or illegal based upon any number of factors. What we’ve seen recently is officials now waiting for several seconds before throwing the flag and there are numerous problems with that.

 If the hit results in the offensive player ‘getting up slowly’ or not at all, out comes the flag. If the offensive player is on his home field and the hit is questionable, the crowd will often dictate if the 15-yarder is coming and don’t think for a second that crowd reaction doesn’t factor into these penalties. It’s human nature and these officials are indeed human last time I checked.

 Unfortunately the subjectivity goes much further than that. Look at the hit by Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison last year on Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Colt McCoy. Harrison of course, has been the Commissioner’s personal poster boy for ‘all things illegal’ when it comes to hitting offensive players and if you didn’t know this then get your head out of the field turf.

 I cannot deny that Harrison does lead with his head at times and in the case of the hit on McCoy, it certainly appears to look that way, but this is exactly the issue that I’m discussing in regards to subjectivity. On the play in question,Harrison drops into coverage and eventually McCoy scrambles from the pocket. All defensive players are told that once the QB leaves the pocket he is to be treated like any other ball carrier. McCoy is clearly tucking the ball as he approaches the line of scrimmage and Harrison is coming fast. Harrison is in perfect position to make an excellent form tackle with his facemask planted directly into McCoy’s chest. For his part however, McCoy ducks (and who wouldn’t?) which drops his helmet level to the point where Harrison’s head is going to collide with his thus making it a ‘helmet-to-helmet’ hit. A day later and James Harrison is suspended for a game. There was absolutely no intent on the part of Harrison to hit McCoy in the head as he prepared for the tackle and again here is part of the subjectivity; How on earth could Harrison have done anything differently in a span of less than a second? If you know, please tell me and him immediately.

 The issues haven’t stopped there however as more and more flags are thrown against defenders for perfect tackles or hits on quarterbacks thus leading the vast majority of NFL fans asking how long before the teams just start playing flag football. Yes, preserving the safety of players is crucial, but how far is Goodell going to go? Why are the players of today being punished for the violence of their forefathers who played the game a certain way for 75-80 years prior to this all-assault on defenses?

 The National Football League is at a crossroads. It is currently the most popular professional sports league in America and don’t even start with me about how many people prefer soccer to American football based on TV numbers worldwide. That’s like comparing apples to watermelons. The NFL consistently outpaces other sports by significant margins in TV ratings and even beats out Major League Baseball playoff games with its’ own regular season prime-time games.

 Goodell’s thought process is as transparent as his reading glasses when it comes to ‘cleaning up the league.’ Get rid of the violence and more casual fans will come…. The more offensive fireworks there are, the more people play fantasy football… The less violent the game the more appealing to countries in Europe which of course means new franchises!! And of course, the more the league continues to be on high alert for player safety, the better it looks when it goes to court. There’s a huge reason the New Orleans Saints have been docked a total of 77 games by players and coaches while the New England Patriots were docked ZERO for SpyGate. In Goodell’s eyes, one was about the very violence and aggressiveness he wants eliminated while the other was less about ‘on-field’ activity in his view. A complete and utter joke of course, but I digress.

 BountyGate couldn’t have happened at a better time for Goodell. It gave him tremendous leverage with which to wield his punishment powers and hopefully prove to the courts that he is taking this sort of thing very seriously. And now the death of Junior Seau falls into his lap and most assuredly he will use it to continue the call for player safety regardless of whether Seau’s suicide was caused by playing in the NFL or not. He can point to the Saints and he can point to James Harrison and he can say, “Look what we are doing to protect players!”

 As the 2012 NFL Season approaches, Goodell risks alienating fans who actually want to see good defense and hard hits. That’s OK because he knows he is addressing a whole new fan base that loves offense and loads of fantasy points. He also knows he is continuing to keep money in the owners’ pockets in an attempt to thwart litigation by former players and expand the league.

 Players must have adequate safety measures in place and they must learn to tackle and hit in a more fundamental way, I don’t deny this for a second. Goodell must find a way to protect players, keep the former players happy and keep the owners’ wealthy and still put a great product on the field. Frankly, I don’t like where we’re headed so get ready for more Arena-style football in an NFL stadium near you.

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