This week Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather actually said what the NFL feared might be coming: That new concussion rules will prompt him (and likely many other players) to begin targeting ACL’s in response to no longer being able to hit opponents above the shoulders.
“To be honest, you’ve just got to go low now,” Meriweather said. “You gotta end people’s careers.”
Aside from the obvious concerns with having a current player blatantly state his intentions to end the careers of others, there are a number of complex layers to examine relating to the current NFL efforts designed to protect players from head injuries. While it may seem like an easy endeavor in tightening up rules to protect against concussions, the changes to improve safety do not occur in a static condition. For example, in the eyes of Meriweather, the only logical response to being prohibited from delivering head blows is to find another body part to target with the intention of ending NFL careers. The net result? A prevented concussion possibly at the cost of a different career-threatening injury (ACL).
Searching for the perfect balancing point…
In an ideal situation the NFL would find the perfect balance that protects players from head injuries while not increasing the chance for other serious, permanent injuries to occur. The NFL also has to examine the risk/reward in fan support and popularity any time rules are changed that take away from on-field aggression — a key selling point that draws many fans to the sport. I believe that the NFL has its hands full here, especially because of the following factors:
- Today’s NFL prototype. With all the glitz, glamor, and money associated with making it to the NFL, many young players today have been bred to hit, and hit hard. The reality is that players who knock QB’s out of games not only help their team on the field, but also create opportunities for themselves to get longer and more lucrative contracts.
- Today’s technology and equipment is better than ever, leading to a faster game in general. Asking players to slow down and more specifically focus on where they are allowed to hit is an almost impossible proposition, especially when you consider how fast the game has become. While it might be admirable that the NFL is trying to protect head hits, is this possible?
- There is an incentive to hit for branding purposes. Many players develop their persona, and subsequent future marketing, from developing an on-field identity of that of an assassin, for lack of a better term. Many players today enjoy fame and fortune outside of the game because of their image — and hard-hitting tough guys usually sell well to the public.
- The NFL has an incentive to allow the hardest hitting possible, which often results in more fan support, more television revenue, and more merchandising. Lets be honest, fans are not turning out to games to watch two-hand touch football, and the “NASCAR crash” phenomena (where fans come rushing in to see an accident) is very alive in the NFL. If you take away blows to the head — and possibly knee shots in the future if Meriweather and other players continue to spout off — the on-field product could dramatically change in ways the NFL would never want.
Big future questions remain
So where will all this lead to in the coming years? It goes without saying that protecting players from concussions is vitally important to player safety, but where will the fulcrum eventually balance when it comes to player safety versus keeping an exciting, hard-hitting product on the field? And then there’s the question of reality — is there an ideal model that allows players to slow down enough to hit other parts of the body while not trying to “end careers” by aiming for knees?
Personally, I am skeptical and scared for the future of the NFL when I think about all these moving pieces that really have less to do with the game of football, and more to do with today’s athlete and the incredible strength, speed, and quickness many possess (not to mention incentives to knock opponents out and end careers). It seems as though “the kids have outgrown the sandbox” and that future injury-prevention moves by the NFL might be unrealistic, and even if players are able to accommodate to the changes will the game be forever compromised as it applies to fan interest? I also fear for very dark days ahead when players like Meriweather are so brazen in speaking out about their intention to focus on career-ending knee shots as a trade off to not being able to go for the head.
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