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Penalizing Big Hits

Penalizing Big Hits

When it comes to big hits, the NFL is in between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” and they totally put themselves there. At some point the NFL knew that multiple concussions were detrimental to the overall quality of life of their players.  However, it is an over-simplification to say that the NFL is still marketing bit hits to kids.  They have since attempted to legislate against big hits in the game.  However, they have managed to anger two sets of players in opposite ways.  They have angered retired players for encouraging big hits and they have angered current players for penalizing big hits.  The overall attitude towards the game needs to change.

On the one hand, retired players are upset because they were allowed and even encouraged to work in conditions that lessen the quality and duration of life beyond their playing years. At some point, the NFL knew about the long term effects of multiple concussions and actively kept the information from getting out. The former players were continually encouraged to keep playing even if they’d been “dinged” or had gotten “their clock cleaned” on a big hit, even though at some point the NFL knew it was bad for them.

In addition to settling the lawsuit from retired players, the NFL has responded by trying to make the game safer for its current players.  Now that more information on concussions has come out, the NFL is trying to make the game safer by issuing penalties, and even fines in some cases, for hits that used to not only be legal, but were consistently encouraged. The NFL is eliminating such things as helmet-to-helmet hits. In addition, players cannot lead with their helmets either when they are tackling another player or carrying the ball.  Players also are not allowed to hit the quarterback in the helmet even if it is accidental.  Finally, defensive players can no longer hit a “defenseless receiver” anymore.

These new rules, ironically, are leading to the NFL’s other problem.  Current players are now upset with the NFL for trying to legislate safety into the game. One of the newer rules against hitting a “defenseless receiver” has defensive players up in arms. A defenseless receiver is a wide receiver who is in the act of catching a pass and obviously cannot protect himself from being hit since he is trying to catch the ball. In the past, defensive players were taught to hit this person as hard as possible in order to jar the ball loose.  If they injured the player in the process, that was just a bonus.  As others have pointed out, the hardest and most spectacular hits were wildly celebrated, unless an unconscious receiver had to be carted off the field.

This is exactly why current defensive players are so upset.  From Pee Wee football on to High School, College and the Pros, these players have all been taught and encouraged to play the game with a certain technique, such as hitting helmets, and now suddenly they’re not only being penalized but also fined for it. In their view, that’s a lot of engrained culture to suddenly unlearn. They argue that it is really difficult to suddenly unlearn a technique they have been taught for over a decade.

Interestingly, even some offensive players don’t like the new rules either because of an unintended consequence; in an effort to completely avoid hitting a player in the head, defenders are now starting to hit really low, which will most likely result in many more severe knee injuries. Believe it or not, the prevailing attitude among most offensive players is I’d rather have a concussion than a torn ACL.   This is exactly what New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said when he took a low hit that ended this past season for him.  As unbelievable as that might seem to viewers, for them it is a question of a tangible injury which adversely and immediately affects their career versus something that may or may not hinder them in the future.

The current debate has resulted in mixed messages for kids. The NFL is finally trying to actively encourage a new, and presumably safer, style of play. At the same time, the players are constantly being quoted on how they are now being penalized for playing the game the way that they were always taught was the correct way to play it. The prevailing attitude of the players still is: It’s always been a tough game and people are going to get hurt. If you don’t like it, go play something else. The only way that attitude changes is by changing the way the game is taught from the very beginning, starting with the pee wee leagues.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————– Author: Mike Zeitzmann Mike Zeitzmann has spent 30 years in broadcasting, including working with the late sportscaster Pat Summerall. He is an avid sports junkie and gelato lover.  He currently lives in Italy.

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