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Sports Authority

Baltes: Fans need to accept changes in the NFL to protect players

| Thursday, August 30, 2018

It’s fair to say that I’m not among the closest followers of the NFL. Last year’s regular season came and went without me paying much notice, and it wasn’t really until the month of February that I had much of a rooting interest for any particular team. On a completely unrelated note, I happen to have grown up just outside of Philadelphia.

While my serious viewership of professional football in the past five years might be almost solely confined to having watched an elite, well-established Nick Foles march the Birds past some fresh-faced young upstart named Tom, I can still recognize that the NFL has a bit of an issue with player safety.

This is hardly an original observation. When individuals wearing veritable suits of armor crash into each other at full speed, it’s not much of a surprise if someone gets hurt. That which was true of medieval warfare remains equally true of modern American sports.

In recent years, the NFL has begrudgingly acknowledged the long-term health risks that its players have been exposed to for decades. After a 2017 Boston University study found that 110 of the sampled 111 former players exhibited symptoms of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a disease that severely inhibits one’s brain functions and impulse control and is understood to be caused by repeated trauma to the head, the league announced its commitment to “advancing progress in the prevention and treatment of head injuries.” Beyond donating significant funds to medical research on head trauma, the NFL has made various amendments to its near-sacred rulebook in the interest of preventing concussions during gameplay. One recent such amendment has attracted the ire of players and fans alike.

Starting this season, teams will be penalized 15 yards when “a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent,” in accordance with Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. The contact no longer needs to be helmet-to-helmet to draw a flag; any head-first hit on an opponent’s body will be penalized. Many players, especially defenders, have been vocal in their opposition to the change.

Outspoken San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman recently took to Twitter to air his grievances with the rule.

“There is no ‘make adjustment’ to the way you tackle,” he wrote. “Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head.”

Other players have made similar statements decrying how difficult it will be to bring down ball-carriers without running afoul of the rule, while incredulous fans have angrily posted clips of various previously-legal tackles from this summer’s preseason games that resulted in the penalty. Others have pointed out that the rule may force defenders to focus their hits on the legs of ball-carriers, potentially resulting in a sharp uptick of injuries to that part of the body.

Perhaps all these detractors are right, at least to some degree. Defensive strategy will certainly need some reevaluating in order to stay on the right side of the rules, and the means of tackling that have traditionally been most effective may have to be done away with. There is also the possibility that a decrease in concussions may be at least partly offset by an increase in lower body injuries.

As it has repeatedly responded to rule changes, from the forward pass to instant replay, football will likely whine briefly before shrugging its shoulders and trudging on in its way. I can’t say for sure whether the rule change will ultimately affect the game negatively or positively, but I do think the debate itself highlights a bigger issue — there just may not be a way to make football safer without radically altering the sport.

Why must choices have to be made between ACLs and brains? While football’s entertainment value is undeniably high for the millions of Americans who watch and play the sport at all levels, the game may be in need of some serious adjustments. How, though, would such a game remain captivating to audiences and players who have been accustomed to a game that is much more chaotic and physical? Would the United States lose one of its most enduring and iconic athletic landmarks? It’s a problem without an obvious solution, but one that will have to be reckoned with sooner or later as public pressure mounts and medical evidence grows more damning.

Sherman ended his tweet with what was meant to be an ominous warning: “[It] will be flag football soon.”

Is his statement exaggerated? Certainly. The NFL’s new helmet rule suggests nothing of the sort. Would the outcome he fears be the worst thing ever? Probably not.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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