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Player Safety and the Hypocrisy of the NFL

On one hand, the league has changed rules to improve player safety. On the other hand, a money grab exposes 90 players each week to completely unnecessary risk of compounding injuries and adds excessive wear and tear to the players.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Illustrating the Changes to the Game

Most sport blog readers are too young to remember Earl Campbell. I’ll never forget him. >Check out this run against one of the best LB’s in the game during the late ‘70’s, Isiah Robertson.

That play would be a penalty in the league now; Campbell was outside the tackles on the play and clearly lowered his head to knock Robertson into next week and keep running.

Here’s another illustration of how the rules have changed the game, especially the "unprotected receiver" rule and "helmet to helmet contact" rules. Those rules have changed how defenses (especially safeties) play the game compared to the game I grew up watching.

While Tatum did get his share of PF’s and late hit penalties, no flags are thrown in any play from that highlight clip. I am not saying that the rule changes are bad, in fact, I like them and believe (for the most part) they were needed to preserve, or in some cases, improve the game. My memory of those hits is tempered by seeing Tatum paralyze Daryl Stingley in a pre-season game before the start of the 1978 season. And for a further illustration of how the game has changed (plus a little eyewash from highlights of a Slytherin House minion), check out how one of the best Bolt safeties ever put the wood to a few guys in his career.

So what is with this stroll down memory lane? Am I just a bitter old middle-aged man whining about the game being ruined? No, I am not bitter about this at all and I believe we have a better game today than we did 20, 30, and 40 years ago. I applaud the emphasis on avoiding concussion, paraplegia inducing tackles & hits, and attempts to reduce chronic encephalopathy.

One thing that does focus my ire though is a business talking out of one side of its mouth about employee safety, while going all-in on a situation that jeopardizes the safety of those same employees. I understand that businesses try to maximize their profits, but hypocrisy is an ugly thing, and a peculiar practice of human beings that really, really bothers me. The particular axe I am grinding today is Thursday Night Football.

Four Days Is Not Enough

This Popular Mechanics article from a few years ago discusses the kinetic energy transferred and G-Forces produced by one large human body colliding with another at a combined speed of 30 miles per hour. I have experienced 4g’s doing acrobatics in an aircraft and ridden on some pretty hard core roller coasters, but taking a shot worth 1600 pounds of kinetic energy, followed by a slam into the turf, with head accelerations of 30, 60, 100, or 150 g’s is something completely outside my experience.

This Fox sports article articulates my issue succinctly. Note the author referring to the "24 – 36 hours" of inflammation" (a four syllable word for "swollen") after playing. Read the article again – a college player spent Sunday with a body swollen from the impacts of his Saturday game. The author mentions that he has no idea how he would have felt after an NFL game. But Jerome Bettis certainly knew.

We have all heard the descriptions: guys being barely able to get out bed on Monday; barely able to walk or sleep on Sunday and Monday nights because of the pain; and after a few seasons, chronic pain from hundreds of hits that never get a chance to fully heal during a season.

And with that backdrop, in the past few seasons, the league has mandated 90 men to go all out on prime time TV four days after dishing out and receiving the physical damage of an NFL football game. This amounts to putting more bruises, contusions, lacerations, strains, pulls, micro tears, pointers, lumps, and micro fractures on top of the ones that have barely had a chance to start healing. It is wrong. And it is hypocrisy in its vilest form.

In a typical NFL workweek, Mondays are mandated days off, although players will still usually visit the team’s trainer, work out, and perhaps do some film study. The first practices of the week do not usually take place until Wednesday, with typically a pretty intense practice on Thursday, another fairly intense practice on Friday, and then a day of little activity on Saturday, which is also the travel day for the visiting team.

A compressed workweek, with a practice needing to happen Tuesday and Wednesday, without the time for a player to even start feeling right before they need to practice and then get a full speed pounding, shows everyone how much the league and owners really care about player health and safety. For a league that has given so much lip service to "protecting" the players and "player safety being a priority", this is a glaring demonstration of the NFL’s only priority - money. Thursday Night Football makes a lot of it, which means it is good in the eyes of the owners, no matter how bad it may be for the most valuable asset their employees own, their bodies.

There Is a Solution

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is that there is a simple step that the league can take to have TNF, while enhancing the health and safety of the men playing the TNF games. Cut TNF to October through the first week of December, and then schedule teams that had their bye weeks the previous Sunday to play on Thursdays.

Here is a link to the NFL’s season schedule. Take note of the week 10 TNF game, the Bengals vs. the Browns. What really bothers me is that those same two teams had a Week 4 bye. If you are going to put those teams on TNF, why not put them on for the Week 5 game? The players get time to heal; time to get proper game preparation, and some extra days off before and after the TNF game. It also lets the NFL at least appear to be genuinely concerned about the health of the players.

While this means that league may forego some cash, that should not be an issue, as the league was still making a whole lot of money when the only Thursday games were the ones hosted by the Lions and Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Speaking of Detroit and Dallas, these teams get the same by week every season and are joined by 4 other teams that get one of the last scheduled weeks off in a season. No problem there, as far as I can see.

TNF as a regular thing is only a couple of seasons old. It needs to be shifted around now before the league starts to view it as an institution. With the way the schedules are set – up, it really would not take much effort to implement this simple reform.

If the league does insist on keeping things the way they are, something else can be done. For teams playing TNF, allow them to have all 53 players active and add in all the practice squad players they want to the active squad for the TNF game, without it affecting the contract status of the PS member.

While the core of the team may still be trying force their banged up bodies to move around at game speed, some young, hungry, marginal players get chances to strut their stuff. Who knows, maybe when a young unknown trying to make an impression puts a season or career ending lick on ________ (insert name of future HoF face of franchise and/or league here), the NFL might come to its senses and re-think how it does Thursday night games.

If a dummy like me can figure this out, the brains behind a $10 Billion a year business certainly can. The fact that it has not yet been figured out, means that the NFL is making a deliberate choice to run things this way for the sake of a few extra bucks. That is wrong, just about any way you look at it.