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Steelers fan view: Has the growing emphasis on player safety tainted or enriched professional sports?

One of the members here on SteelerAddicts, also on staff, recently wrote a paper for her college professor on a subject close to heart and to the hearts of not only Pittsburgh Steelers fans, but NFL fans across the country. Eve Kronzek graciously gave us permission to use her paper as an article for blog; thank you Eve, we greatly appreciate it. We think it’s very well written and we’re definitely proud of Eve for her dedication to research on this subject and for all her support of SteelerAddicts. We’re sure that you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did. So without further delay…Has the growing emphasis on player safety tainted or enriched professional sports?

“I believe the game was designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.” These famous words were voiced by former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert, who in 2004 was named the toughest football player of all time by Fox Sports Net. However, Jack Lambert played mainly in the 1970s, a very different time in the National Football League (NFL) from what is has become today. The 1970s and the few decades prior were a time in the NFL with very few rules and very little desire to increase player safety, and little emphasis on how to ensure that the players would not be injured during the game (Coenen). In February of 2012, when asked about the issue of player safety, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell answered that the NFL was, “going to continue to push to make this game safe” and that this push was going to be, “good for the players [and] good for the game.” There’s no doubt that this drive towards player safety will be good for the players in the long run, but can one say that it will really be that good for the game?

Causes of the increased attention to player safety

On the statistics side of it, it seems perfectly logical that the NFL would want to increase the safety of their players. With annual revenues topping eight billion dollars, the National Football League is the country’s wealthiest professional sports organization. However, that large amount of success was under heavy fire by critiques of the organization, especially in the 2009 season, who said that the NFL’s indifference to player safety and health was harming the value and general public interest of the sport (Jost). Information has surfaced over the past few years about players who were forced to retire early because of injuries sustained over their careers, or injuries that have harmed a player even well after his playing days. Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, both marquee players of their time and of all time, were forced into early retirement because of injury issues. Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame quarterback, suffered so many broken fingers and thumbs during his career that he eventually lost almost complete use of his right hand.

The player’s deliberate actions are also motives for the NFL calling considerable attention to the matter of player safety. Late in the 2009 season, it was under much question if Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would play in an important matchup with their division rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, after suffering from concussion-like symptoms just a week before. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward commented on the situation, calling out his own quarterback by saying, “I’ve been out there dinged up; the following week, got right back out there.” Ward’s comments reflect a philosophy that has been predominant in the NFL since its existence; playing while injured. It has become an attitude formed from a combination of the players needing to demonstrate their masculinity by playing such a physical game while injured, and the monetary incentives that they receive by doing so (Jost). The fans want to see the pain filled Sundays and the painful Mondays of hard hitting professional footballs, and the players are well aware of that fact (Gargano). Neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher has described it as, “pressures on the players, pressures that they put on themselves.” This is something that the NFL cannot particularly help. If a player is injured but suggests that they are ready to play, then the NFL as an organization cannot do anything about it. However, the NFL can help if the players get injured in the first place, by coming up with extensive rules to prevent injury.

The last noted cause of the widespread amount of injuries that have been noted in the NFL, especially in recent years, has to do with the purposeful actions of players. This, however, is not pressures that players put on themselves, but pressures put on players by their coaches and trainers. The so-called, “Bounty Gate” has surfaced at the end of the 2011 season, in which the New Orleans Saints were found guilty of the use of paid bounties as motivational techniques (monetary enticements) for NFL players. Although this issue has just been raised in the past few months, many present and former NFL players and coaches are claiming that this locker room bounty-placing-practice has been occurring in the NFL for many decades (Saints Bounty Gate). If the players don’t seem to be keeping their best interests in mind, and players definitely are not keeping their opponents best interests in mind, the NFL has felt it necessary to do all that they can do prevent the excessive injury of players.

Safety rule changes compared to prior years

For the 2010 season, the NFL created a variety of rules that were new to the former traditional value of the NFL. Prior to the 21st century, there were very few rules that were intended to protect the players from harm, and those rules were only obvious ones. The rules created prior to this obsession with player well-being included; the roughing the passer rule enacted in 1938, the mandatory use of helmets for all players in 1943, the illegality of grabbing a facemask in 1962, the unnecessary roughness penalty if a player uses his helmet as a weapon in 1979, and the prohibiting of a blocker from rolling up on a defenders legs in 1999. Although these are just a few of the rules that were created, few of them impacted the game to a large extent, and the game was still seen to the public as a very physical and macho one.

However, the league went penalty crazy starting in the 2010 season after new rules were created to further protect the players from unwarranted injury. A few of those rules in 2010 consisted of; a player who has just completed a catch is protected from blows to the head by an opponent, and kickers and punters during the kick and return, and quarterbacks after a change of possession are protected from blows to the head delivered by an opponent’s helmet, forearm, or shoulder. In the 2011 season, the strict rules and penalties continued to expand, an unfortunate circumstance for the hard hitting defensive players in the NFL. For the 2011 season, the list of “defenseless players” was expanded to include a kicker or punter during the kick or during the return, and a quarterback at any time after a change of possession. Previously, these players were protected against blows to the head, but not against blows delivered by an opponent with parts of the helmet against other parts of the body. A defenseless player was also defined as a receiver who has completed a catch and remains a defenseless player until he has had time to protect himself or has clearly become a runner (NFL).

Positive Effects of the increased attention to player safety

Attention to this issue has been placed mainly on damage to the players’ brains that they may sustain as a result of concussions throughout their career. As a result, the NFL introduced new guidelines in February of 2011 that were to be used to determine whether an athlete who had been on the receiving end of a powerful hit and may have sustained a concussion would be taken out or sent back into the game. This is the first time since its existence that the NFL has put forward a set of procedures-including a symptom checklist, evaluation of the player’s attention and memory, neurologic examination, and a balance assessment-for everyone in the league to follow once there is the possibility of a concussion (Shaw). Previous to this set of rules, there were no checkpoints that an athlete had to meet in order to be sent back into a game after a punishing hit, therefore making head injuries more likely and more predominant. Margot Putukian, chair of the Return-to-Play subcommittee of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, explains that the procedures, “[incorporate] the most important aspects of a focused exam, so that injury is identified, and athletes with concussion and more serious head and spine injury can be removed from play.” By adding these concussion guidelines, the NFL increases its chances of preventing life altering injuries in its athletes, a phenomenon that has not been recently heard of in the NFL’s lifetime. It will keep players out of the game who are not physically equipped to play regardless of what trainers or the players themselves say, therefore limiting the exacerbation of already existing potential injuries.

Concussions on all plays had dropped 12.5% in the 2011 season, seemingly as a result of the combination of these new concussion guidelines and the influential amount of new safety rules, therefore accomplishing NFL’s strengthened safety agenda. The league had stated that the 2011 concussion rate at .594 concussions per game is the lowest that it has been in three years, an attribution to the strict fines, penalties, and suspensions that have come from the crackdown on hits to the head and neck (Mihoces). The statistics prove that the NFL’s new safety agenda has indeed been working to solve their problems. However, at what cost has that come? The NFL carries a traditional value of a game that many Americans have come to cherish as one that exemplifies hard working, hard hitting, and diligent players, which we are now seeing become a wary and cautious being of its former self.

Negative effects of the increased attention to player safety

The Pittsburgh Steelers have become an obvious scapegoat for the NFL’s new safety agenda, as they have never had a shortage of hard hitting players on the team. In the third week of October in the 2010 season, the league began to let their cause of player safety be known by all hard hitting teams and players in the league by beginning to aggressively fine those who delivered hits deemed particularly dangerous (Layden). After all was said and done, James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers was hit with the highest fine of $75,000 for a notorious October 17th, 2010 hit on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in which he collided helmets with Massaquoi, who was not a defenseless receiver but a runner at the time. James Harrison was penalized with an unnecessary roughness penalty that punished his team, and a large monetary fine that punished his bank account. James Harrison would go on to be fined a total of hundreds of thousands of dollars within the last few years and would suffer a one game suspension in December of 2011 for his on the field actions, becoming the NFL’s personal poster boy for anti-hitting regulations.

James Harrison and other tough defensive players around the NFL are seemingly being punished for what would, a few decades ago, be glorified and respected in the league by fans and players alike. Many fans and many players around the league, evidently including James Harrison, have openly showed their aversion to Roger Goodell’s excessive use of the new system of penalties and fines. A few of the brave players have spoken out publicly about the issue. Most recently, in an interview with KILT on April 5th, 2012, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard has expressed that he believes Roger Goodell’s emphasis on player safety is going to eventually turn professional football into flag football. More specifically, he stated that, “this is not powderpuff football, this is not flag football. This is a violent sport. And it’s a fun sport — we all love playing this game.” … “We wear helmets and shoulder pads. That means you’re supposed to go knock somebody around. We [aren’t] wearing flags.”

And there, in Bernard Pollard’s very public interview, lies the controversy with the NFL’s new rules and penalties and fines that has been noted amongst many players and fans for the past few years. If everyone can acknowledge that football is a violent game, and everyone that plays football is knowingly and openly exposing themselves to that violence, then why are there now such a large amount of rules prohibiting that violence and that hard hitting mentality that many football fans have grown up loving?

Extension to other professional sports

The NFL is not the only professional sports league that is paying attention to this newly recognized player safety agenda. Many other professional sports leagues have also noted that they are trying to decrease the amount of brain injuries that their athletes sustain, namely one of the only sports played in America that can be said to be more violent than football: hockey.

By the 2011 season in the NHL, a year after the NFL launched their player safety plan, NHL executive Brendan Shanahan, the official responsible for enforcing rules to prevent excess violence in the sport, began his own agenda to reduce concussions in the NHL (Farber). Shanahan is also a former NHL player who was himself suspended for rules violations in his playing days. The most significant hockey upgrades for the 2011 season were a restored Rule 48, which now penalized all intentional or reckless hits to the head, and a tweaked Rule 41, which broadened the interpretation of boarding, a very dangerous and potentially career ending practice in the NHL. Coincidentally, this all came nine months after losing the NHL’s most important star-Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins-to a concussion sustained on New Years Day in the Winter Classic game against the Washington Capitals.

As many NHL and NFL players will tell you, however, there is a large difference between what Brendan Shanahan is doing in the NHL and what Roger Goodell is doing in the NFL, mainly because one understands the pressures of the game, and one does not. When asked about the new rules applied in the NHL, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said that, “[Shanahan] understands the speed of the game and has a rapport with a lot of players.” Shanahan has a kinship with many of the players and they respect him for understanding the game and being a player once himself, and as a result he does not making rather unreasonable rules and fine players who do not adhere to them. This is compared to Roger Goodell, who, as Bernard Pollard so eloquently put it, “[Has] never played the game, [and] can’t tell me what it’s like.”

Conclusion

Any normal fan of a sport would say that we would all love to see our favorite players live long past their playing days, and not to be negatively affected by the very game that provides so many of us with such joy and entertainment. However, the NFL must learn some sort of lesson from the NHL’s example, and find a balance between establishing safety in the sport and completely changing what the sport has come to be. There can be an essence of protection from injury for the players, without altering the league in its entirety. How to do that is up to the commissioners and executives of the NFL that are being paid millions of dollars to face that very subject.

- Eve Kronzek

Works Cited

Coenen, Craig R. From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League,

1920-1967. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2005. Print.

Farber, Michael. “It’s a Whole New Game.” Sports Illustrated 10 Oct. 2011: 60-66. Print.

“Evolution Of Rules.” Evolution of Rules. NFL, 25 May 2012. Web. 16 June 2012.

<http://nflhealthandsafety.com/commitment/evolution/>.

Gargano, Anthony L. NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional

Football. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.

Jost, Kenneth. “Professional Football: Is the NFL Doing Enough to Protect Players?” CQ

            Researcher by CQ Press. 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 June 2012.

Layden, Tim. “The Hits Keep Coming.” Sports Illustrated 31 Jan. 2011: 32-37. Print.

Mihoces, Gary. “Kickoff Returns, Concussions Drop in 2011 after Rule Change.” USA

Today. Gannett, 02 Feb. 2012. Web. 17 June 2012.

Shaw, Gina. “Football Players and Concussions: Statistics, Prevention, Effects, and More.”

WebMD. Ed. Laura J. Martin. WebMD, Web. 17 June 2012.

“Understanding “Bounty Gate.”" Saints and Bounty Gate. 2012. Web. 16 June 2012.

<http://saintsbountygate.com/>.

 

 

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