Suspending reckless hitters the best option
American football will never be safe. Science proved that.
Roger Goodell can try to make the NFL safer, but he can't legislate that, either. The commissioner's power in such matters relies on coercion, and judging by last weekend's slate of games, some of the same people he's trying to reach couldn't care less. A few seemed more determined than ever to wring their opponents' necks, regardless of the consequences.
A rough count turned up at least four reported concussions. There were another three helmet hits in the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game that were questionable at best and cringeworthy at the very least. And in what can best be described as frontier justice, Washington safety Brandon Meriweather concussed Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy with a helmet-to-helmet blow, then suffered a concussion of his own trying to administer the same punishment to another Packer back later in the game.
Incredibly, neither blow drew a flag on the field, though Meriweather was fined after a review by the league. Not surprisingly, coach Mike Shanahan defended his player in both instances.
"On the first one it looked like the running back was kind of going downhill, and when Brandon went for the tackle it looked to me like it was perfect and then all of a sudden when [Lacy] ducked his head, I couldn't tell," the coach said.
"The second one on the sidelines, that's what you're supposed to do. That's a legal hit," Shanahan said, and league director of officiating Dean Blandino agreed.
Even less surprising, Packers coach Mike McCarthy saw it differently.
Of the first play he said, "The Washington safety definitely led with his helmet, so I know that's not what we're looking for."
About the second hit, on James Starks, McCarthy added, "Same thing, different result."
It didn't help Meriweather's case that he had a rap sheet dating to 2010, being docked US$40,000 for a pair of helmet-to-helmet hits while playing for New England, and another US$20,000 for a similar incident a year later playing for Chicago.
But Meriweather wasn't the only repeat offender on the weekend. That honour was claimed by Tampa Bay's Dashon Goldson, who finally got suspended for all his efforts - but only for one game.
Goldson was fined US$30,000 just last week for a hit on Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland. He's collected more personal fouls than anyone in the league - 15 total - since 2010. That history hardly stopped him from trying to lower the boom on Saints' running back Darren Sproles, or worrying too much about the suspension afterward.
"The NFL has its own rules, but we're just trying to play football," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "We're not worried about those penalties, we're really not. That's just football. We learn how to tackle when we're young and [we've] been doing this for a long time."
Goldson is right; both the part about leaning into tackles with the helmet, and ignoring what follows.
The recent US$765 million settlement ending a lawsuit by thousands of former players against the NFL reminded us of that. Granted, those players didn't know how much damage the game was causing. But just like today's better-informed cohort, most of them played without dwelling for long on the consequences.
We can argue whether Goodell has been an honest broker. On the one hand, he hired independent experts to study the concussion problem not long after taking over, instituted brain baseline testing and standardised reporting and preventive measures, even helped push through rules - including one introduced just this season - to reduce collisions and punish blows to the head.
On the other hand, he and his owners had to be shamed into those steps by the improving science on concussions and mounting threats of legal liability. He's also pushed for an 18-game regular season, and taken the lead in an increasingly disingenuous PR campaign aimed at the game's fans suggesting that football can somehow be made safe.
Goodell has lent his powers of persuasion to the NFL's "Heads Up Football" initiative, which purports to teach kids and their coaches tackling skills that would minimise potential head and neck injuries. He knows how little difference those measures would make.
It's not just Goodell's fight, of course. He can't protect players from themselves.
But the league could spend less time instructing officials to crack down on cursing and faked injuries, and err more often on the side of caution in helmet-to-helmet hits. Fining repeat offenders such as Ndamukong Suh, James Harrison and more recently Meriweather hasn't made a dent, not with the paychecks they cash nearly every week. Goldson's suspension is a good first step, so long as it's not the last.
Goodell can't stop players from playing too fast and reckless any more than authorities can stop the same behaviour on highways. But he can do everyone a favour by taking a few of them off the road now and then.