Commentary | Recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been forced to confront his sport’s past record on player safety, especially regarding traumatic head injuries. The league recently settled a lawsuit over concussions brought by former players to the tune of $765 million. PBS recently aired ‘League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis’ on Frontline, which accuses NFL management of willful negligence in addressing head trauma. Goodell has answered critics with aggressive P.R. campaigns and rule changes, but often his actions seem more designed to increase offensive output, especially in the passing game, rather than to increase player safety.
Roger Goodell is a savvy businessman and the NFL is, first and foremost , in the entertainment business. Goodell is as much the C.E.O of a multi-billion dollar corporation, as he is the commissioner of a beloved sport. He understands that the NFL is in competition for your entertainment dollar, and so it’s important to him to offer the slickest, sexiest, most exciting product he can. And what the NFL is packaging today is scoring and speed.
Every sport has its most eye-grabbing moment, the one they replay on YouTube and ESPN; baseball has the home run, basketball the slam dunk. In football that money play is the touchdown pass, and the longer the better. Those are the plays that make the highlight reel, so those are (from a marketing standpoint) the plays that make bank. The NFL is vested so heavily in that idea that it has created a cable channel, NFL RedZone, that shows nothing but a rotation of offenses in scoring position, a fantasy footballers dream; no team loyalty, no game strategy or ball control, just touchdowns. It’s all dessert, and no vegetables.
So maybe we can understand Roger Goodell’s motives if he tweaks the rules of contact or otherwise handicaps defensive backs with penalties and fines. And once a few flags get thrown for running backs lowering their heads, it will probably make the NFL even more of a “passing league” than it has already become.
These graphs show that the passing game is opening up year after year, even more so since Goodell came to power. But it’s not making the game safer; in fact it may be making it less safe for position players like receivers, cornerbacks and safeties. The tempo and scoring of the NFL game has been increased over time by both rule changes and technology such as artificial turf, and lightweight uniforms and pads. Everything from diet, to training, to shoes are designed and engineered for heightened speed. Between those advances and receivers running basically untouched into open space, the likelihood of high speed, high impact collisions are increased.
An accident in a car traveling at 50 miles per hour is 20 times more likely to cause fatalities than a car traveling at 15 miles per hour. Speed and velocity increase the severity of impact. The same holds true for people. 2 men running full speed at one another from ten yards away is going to create a more forceful impact than from 5 yards away.
If NFL rules were amended so that defenders could slow receivers at the line of scrimmage and more contact was allowed down field, it would not only lessen the impact of collisions, it would also result in more true tackling and less ‘big hits,’ which are currently the most dangerous play in football. Defenses would no longer rely as heavily on coverage schemes that use linebackers and safeties as ‘assassins,’ hanging back in space and colliding with receivers after the catch.
If these rule changes were made in conjunction with other safety measures, such as additional padding on the outside of helmets, professional football would be a much safer game. Would it completely erase the danger of concussion? Probably not, but it could create a dramatic decrease in injuries, including traumatic brain injury.
The question is whether or not Roger Goodell and the NFL (and its fans) are willing to make their product a little less sexy, to make it a lot safer.