If the athletes whom the rules are being enforced upon cannot grasp the meaning of the guidelines set forth for them, the league has failed the players as well as the game itself.
To the tune of a blood hungry roar from a packed coliseum, an ancient Roman gladiator marches into battle, his sword and shield in hand, eager to quench his blood thirst. Since 1920, this gladiator has taken a different form. No longer does he don a metal helmet and sword; his helmet is made of polycarbonate plastic, and he carries an egg-shaped ball. He does not fight for a lanista, but for an organization, the NFL. Much like the sport of gladiators, football players willingly engage in brutal combat each time they take the field, laying their bodies on the line for the love of the game. Fans idolize the players, religiously cheering at each bone-crunching hit. To remove the “big hit” from football, as the NFL is seeking to do with harsh fines and rule changes, would be an affront to the nature of the sport. Due to the strain being placed on officials, the fans’ desire to see big hits, and the looming danger that the essence of football may be compromised by rule changes, the NFL must adjust the definition of a legal hit and cease the issuing of penalties and fines to players who make illegal hits.
It is understandable that as the game of football evolves, rules must change to keep up with the sport’s dynamicity. However, without clear guidelines as to which types of hits are legal and illegal against a defenseless player, it is the officials who bear the burden of interpreting the newly-instated 2011 rule which controversially defines a defenseless player as one who, “Has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner,” (NFL Fines). Amidst the heat of the moment on a field dominated by speed, not everything is clear to an official. Whether or not a player has established himself as a runner is a snap decision made on the fly by a referee that can differ from play to play. Decisions that call for personal interpretation of the rules cannot expect to be made by officials with consistency, and if the goal of NFL officiating is consistency, rules shrouded in ambiguity are unacceptable. For example, a hit made by Philadelphia Eagles safety Kurt Coleman on Indianapolis Colts receiver Austin Collie in 2010 was deemed illegally made against a defenseless player, earning a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty despite the fact that Collie was enough of a runner to cover the ball, lower his head and prepare himself for impact following the catch. Due to the speed of the game, an official rushed to judgment following the hit without realizing that Collie was hit first by another defender, Quintin Mikell, whose initial tackle forced Collie’s helmet to change direction and crash into Coleman’s. Because the contact made between Coleman and Collie was deemed incidental following a league review, no fine was issued. Though the 15-yard penalty made due to an official’s judgment call could not be taken back during the game.
Conversely, in 2010 when the New England Patriots faced the New York Jets in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs, Patriots receiver Wes Welker was hit hard by Jets safety Eric Smith immediately after catching a pass. Both players’ helmets connected on a hit so vicious that paint chipped off of Smith’s helmet. Following the play Welker got up, unharmed, and a flag was not thrown. Welker was in a position where he had done less to establish himself as a runner than Collie had, without making a cut, covering the ball, or bracing himself, but due to the inconsistency of officiating, no call was made.
The vague wording of the defenseless player rule leads to frustration for officials and players alike. A defenseless receiver in the eyes of a certain official is different from one seen by another referee. Rule changes such as these open up the door to a subjective form of officiating where collisions can be deemed illegal simply when the play results in an injury. In a 2011 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons Cornerback Dunta Robinson made a hit on Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin that warranted a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and a $40,000 fine from the league. Maclin caught the football and took three steps, clearly establishing himself as a runner, before bracing himself for a hit from the approaching Robinson. Robinson hit Maclin forcing him to the ground where he remained for several seconds. A flag was not thrown by the nearby line judge until well after it was realized that Maclin was injured. Robinson’s hit, which would have garnered praise in the NFL of years past, was deemed illegal by the league seemingly due to the result of the play. For players who have been trained to play the game with intensity since their youth, the dilemma is even harder. All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher voiced his displeasure with the new rule, stating, “It’s just frustrating because you don’t know what’s going to be a penalty and what’s not going to be a penalty and you’re assuming if you get a penalty you’re going to get fined… I don’t understand” (qtd. in Pollard Says). If the athletes whom the rules are being enforced upon cannot grasp the meaning of the guidelines set forth for them, the league has failed the players as well as the game itself. While hundreds of collisions occur in a single football game at speeds and frequencies much too difficult to police, unnecessary, flagrant hits are easier to spot than the everyday football variety, which are being flagged at an ever-increasing rate. If the NFL reserves fines and flags for hits intentionally made to endanger other players, the issue of players and referees not being able to distinguish a legal hit from an illegal one can be put to bed. Fines are meant to change a player’s behavior and attitude towards the game and should not be issued in response to clean hits, no matter how vicious.
As a collision sport, there is no shortage of violent impacts in the game of football. Big hits have been a part of the game since its inception, and must remain as the game progresses if the NFL is to stay true to the spirit football has carried for decades. Eliminating big hits would be taking away the unique essence of professional football, the only sport that creates a forum for grown men to release years of pent-up aggression brought on by doubters who never believed they would see a day in the NFL. The NFL allows men to legally assault one another once a week for five months out of the year, a privilege not granted anywhere outside a football stadium. The players know what they are getting themselves into when they join the NFL, and are prepared for the bruises and broken bones that are to come. Kris Jenkins, a retired three-time All Pro selection at defensive tackle speaks from experience, voicing many of the sentiments held by current players regarding rule changes when he says, “The violence, we love it. The madness, we love it… Those guys express themselves with their pads. You soften the game, you’re taking away their freedom of expression” (qtd. in Bishop). Few have the vantage point of a ten-year NFL veteran like Jenkins, having witnessed firsthand the best and worst football has to offer. When looked at in the context of sport-based artistry, NFL fines can be seen as a form of censorship, an oppressive safeguard put in place to limit the abilities of athletes. The athletes are less concerned with their personal wellbeing than the league’s governing body because they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their art.
They are the Vincent Van Goghs and Francisco Goyas of the sporting world, suffering artists prepared to lay down their own lives and allow their pain to shine through their work.
In order to preserve the artists and the game of football, a reversion to the days of past when players were not penalized or fined for big hits is necessary.
For almost a century, the NFL has prided itself on jarring hits, creating highlight reels and handing out accolades for the league’s hardest hitters. Since big hits are a natural consequence of football, they need not be corrected by rules, as they are inherent to the game. To remove big hits would be to make a tear in the fabric of football’s nature. Because players take the field with the intent of punishing their opponents and will do so regardless of the penalties, no number of rule changes will change the nature of football as a collision sport. Instead, rule changes designed to eliminate big hits actually hinder the sport in its development. From its gritty beginnings as a heavily run-oriented game, the NFL has naturally progressed towards the game it is today, where Super Bowls are won predominantly through the air. The evolution of professional football to this point has been natural, with players, coaches, and the game itself dictating change, but with rule changes preventing big hits, the scales are set to be aberrantly stacked in the favor of the offense. Eventually, players will grow tired of the fines taken from their paychecks and the penalties called at the expense of their teams, big hits will drop off substantially, and the game will change yet again. This time, however, the change will not be welcomed by fans, players, and coaches alike. The beautiful sport which has progressed with such remarkable, traceable fluidity will take a man-made turn towards offensive dominance, a turn brought about by the NFL’s desire to fill seats, give fans more points, and sell their product with high-scoring affairs. The league is prepared to sell the game short for the almighty offensive touchdown. While it is what the NFL wants, to remove hard hits, changes to football’s natural order brought on by additional rules are detrimental to the game and prevent it from moving forward properly.
Many would argue that rule changes designed to put a damper on big hits are put in place to protect players from the epidemic of concussions the NFL has experienced over time. While concussions, injuries that occur when the brain is slammed into the inside wall of the skull following impact, have serious long-term health repercussions, teams now treat them more seriously. A newly-instated 2009 rule lays out the strict guidelines for a player’s return to the field, stating, “The player should not be considered for return-to-football activities until he is fully asymptomatic… has a normal neurological examination… and has been cleared to return by both his team physician(s)” (League). What the NFL is doing correctly is creating a safe environment for players following concussions. Requiring players to pass concussion tests and get clearance from doctors is an effective step towards controlling concussions. However, attempting to eliminate concussions altogether through defenseless player rule changes is a fruitless fight that would require players to approach the game differently, something most are not willing to do. Jenkins states that, “Finding the line between insanity and sanity, that’s the exact reason why you play. That’s the reason fans like football in the first place” (qtd. in Bishop). The idea of dressing twenty-two men up in full padding and sending them out onto a field to tackle each other seems to teeter on the brink of insanity. However, no one is forcing NFL players to take the field and hit one another as the Roman gladiators were. Voluntarily sacrificing their bodies for the game, the players love the hits more than anyone else, and they will continue to make the hits with a full understanding of the costs. It is the player’s choice to make a career playing football, a decision with consequences that are to be dealt with directly. For 91 years professional football players have willingly put their bodies on the line, and they will continue to do so regardless of the health impacts.
In summation, the NFL must cease the fining and penalizing of hard hits to preserve the integrity of the game. Football is a collision sport where big hits are necessary, as athletes are trained to crash into one another at high speeds. Creating vaguely worded rules designed to eradicate the big hit creates unwanted confusion for officials as well as players. If the NFL continues to attempt to control an otherwise reckless, raw sport, the essence of the game itself will be compromised. With a reversion to classic football where big hits are not penalized and players are not issued weekly fines for their play, fans and players can again enjoy the game they love in the way it is intended to be played.
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